THE AMERICAN LEGION SCHOOL AWARD:
AN EDUCATIONAL PROGRESSION

HARRY WATERSON

Vol. 65, No. 6 (November-December 2014) and Service.

The American Legion School Award Every medal tells a story. This is a medal that tells more than a million stories. In 2012, 25,722 American Legion School Medals were awarded to outstanding school graduates. And that's across the board - grade school, junior high, high school and college depending on which level of education a particular American Legion Post wished to recognize.

The American Legion was established in Paris, France in March 1919. Its foremost proponent was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He recognized the need for an organization to deal with the needs and well-being of the nearly two million veterans returning from France after World War One. He shepherded the organization through a May 1919 caucus in St. Louis, Missouri and its founding convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota in November 1919. He saw the Legion as a permanent organization similar in purpose to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), but different from these two civil war organizations in that it would last indefinitely. Both groups had been effective in their day but were in the process of dying out since most members well into their 70s in 1919.

Figure 1: The obverse of the original American Legion School Award.

Figure 1: The obverse of the original American Legion School Award.

The Legion is a social and mutual aid organization. In addition to organizing commemorative events, volunteer veteran support activities and volunteer assistance at Veterans Administration hospitals and clinics, it is active in United States politics, primarily lobbying on behalf of the interests of veterans and service members, including support for veteran benefits such as pensions and the Veteran Affairs hospital system.

Legion membership exceeded the one million mark in 1931 and today it is open to any veteran who served during a recognized period of United States conflict. The Legion has six of these time periods with a seventh beginning August 2, 1990 that is still open. Today the membership numbers more that 2.4 million, 95 years after the first convention while the GAR and the UCV are now history.

The American Legion School Awards Program started in Pennsylvania in 1922. The Legion early on established the promotion of Americanism as a primary tenet of the organization. It currently lists three objectives for the School Award Medal Program.1

  1. Place emphasis on the development of the qualities of Courage, Honor, Leadership, Patriotism, Scholarship
  2. Develop those ideals of Americanism among young people which will make them citizens of the highest type.
  3. Give recognition through the award of American Legion School Award Medals to the boy and to the girl who are deemed most worthy of the high qualities of citizenship and of true Americanism.

Figure 2: The reverse of the original American Legion School Award.

Figure 2: The reverse of the original American Legion School Award.

The School Award program started small in the Department of Pennsylvania. It was planned as an award to the best all-around boy in the graduating class of every grammar school in the state where there were at least ten male graduates. Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie (1867-1938) was selected to design the medal. He was a noted sculptor and World War I veteran. He wrote one of the first books on physical therapy for the rehabilitation of veterans from war wounds. He was then chair of the Department of Physical Education at the University of Pennsylvania and a Legionnaire. A contemporary Legionnaire wrote "After many suggestions and conflicting ideas he produced the beautiful medal which was adopted. To satisfy the Marines, their motto "Semper Fidelis," was placed at the feet of the soldier and sailor."2

The medal is bronze, three-inches in diameter (Figure 1) and struck by the Medallic Art Company (MACo). The legend FOR GOD & COUNTRY are the first four words of the preamble of the American Legion Constitution and a sailor and the soldier are seen straddling a seascape to the left blending into a French landscape on the right. The colophon of R. Tait McKenzie's initials is just above 1922 in the triangle formed by the combatants' rear feet. At the base are the words SEMPER FIDELIS.

Figure 3: The obverse of the 1925 female version of theAmerican Legion School Award.

Figure 3: The obverse of the 1925 female version of theAmerican Legion School Award.

Figure 4: The reverse of the 1925 female version of theAmerican Legion School Award.

Figure 4: The reverse of the 1925 female version of theAmerican Legion School Award.

Figure 5: The obverse of the 1951 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 5: The obverse of the 1951 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 6: The reverse of the 1951 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 6: The reverse of the 1951 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 7: The obverse of the 1959 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 7: The obverse of the 1959 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 8: The reverse of the 1963 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 8: The reverse of the 1963 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 9: The obverse of the 1973 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 9: The obverse of the 1973 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 10: The reverse of the 1973 version of the American Legion School Award.

Figure 10: The reverse of the 1973 version of the American Legion School Award.

The reverse (Figure 2) has, at the top, an eagle with wings spread, below which is the legend AMERICAN LEGION / SCHOOL AWARD / COURAGE HONOR SERVICE / LEADERSHIP SCHOLARSHIP. In the lower third of the reverse is the American Legion seal with a sunburst eminating from it on both sides.

The original medal came with a 3/4-inch sterling silver screw-back lapel pin of the reverse of the table medal. This pin was replaced with a bronze screw-back in 1925. It was intended that this award be worn. In fact, in 1939 a hanging badge with a 11/2-inch drop suspended from a standard American Legion olive-colored ribbon with blue, yellow and orange vertical stripes was authorized. The Legion Posts were offered the choice of awarding the medal with either the pin or the hanging badge. This award began in Pennsylvania with 145 recipients in 1922 and grew from there.

The American Legion Auxiliary of the Department of Pennsylvania instituted a female version in 1925 and once again Dr. McKenzie was asked to design the medal. They felt that the male version was too militaristic, so McKenzie designed a warmer, softer version emphasizing the caring patriotic young female ideal. This obverse depicts an adolescent female tending an unfurled American flag with the legend FOR GOD AND COUNTRY (Figure 3). Here the male ampersand is fully spelled out with the Marine motto carefully tucked in below. The McKenzie initials, RTM, are in the left field just above 1925. The medal was bronze, 21/2-inches in diameter and shared the same reverse (Figure 4) as the male version with the exception that the criteria listed were slightly altered. HONOR became CHARACTER and LEADERSHIP became COMPANIONSHIP on the female version. The accompanying pinback 3/4-inch brooch also reflected this change as did the female version of the 1939 hanging badge whose drop was 1/4-inch smaller than the male drop.

The School Awards went national in 1927 when the American Legion Department of Pennsylvania donated the dies of McKenzie's medals to the national organization. The program grew and 10 years later, during the 1937-38 school year, a total of 9,530 awards were made in 53 states and territories; 56 percent to male graduates and 44 percent to female graduates.3

In 1951 the iconography of the School Award was entirely revamped. A new unisex medal was designed, with one uniform size for award to both boys and girls. This medal, and the related pin and hanging badge, in bronze, were done by a talented but unknown sculptor.

The obverse (Figure 5) retains the legend and motto from the 1925 medal but the military motif is now World War II with a soldier, sailor and airman in the foreground with troops under full pack passing behind. At parade rest, on alert and on the march, the design retains the theme of military preparedness as seen on the 1922 medal. The reverse (Figure 6) has moved to more educational icons with a radiant lamp of knowledge sitting atop an open book above a laurel branch crossed with a quill pen. The legend repeats the award criteria from the male medal with AMERICAN / LEGION / SCHOOL AWARD above the lamp and the whole composition anchored with the Legion seal below. Around the outer edge is the words COURAGE LEADERSHIP HONOR SERVICE.

SCHOLARSHIP separated by five-pointed stars. While this design is most felicitous for a school award, there must have been some negative feedback from the American Legion Auxiliary about the male dominated obverse design. This is evident from the many examples seen of the hanging badge of this medal bearing the reverse of the medal as the face of the badge.

In 1959 the obverse was reworked with the addition of two female figures, a WAC and a WAVE from the World War II era (Figure 7). The reverse was also revamped slightly in 1963 with the addition to the legend of the word PATRIOTISM and putting all six of the criteria in alphabetical order (Figure 8). The stars that separated the criteria words are replaced by dots.

These somewhat crowded designs served until 1973 when the Legion decided to step away from military references altogether and reuse an obverse J. Paul Jennewein (1890-1978) had designed for the 50th Anniversary of the American Legion. That 1969 semi-centennial design was a good choice for the School Award as it epitomized the Legion without any extraneous gender baggage. The obverse (Figure 9) featured a large eagle with wings spread upon which is superimposed the Legion seal. Above the wings of the eagle are the E PLURIBUS on the left and UNUM on the right. Below the eagle the inscripion FOR GOD AND / COUNTRY.

The reverse is now a more open design (Figure 10). With the seal gone the bookmark has moved out of the gutter of the book and onto the middle of the right page. There is now a small bundled sheaf at the bottom of the raised legend rim and dots were added between the words of the legend. This reverse did not last long. It was replaced five years later. The pin was not changed and it retained the seal during that period. Pins also exist with and without the dots. No data has been collected to determine when they came and went. The medal and the badge from 1978 to today bear the recycled obverse and the restored reverse with the seal from the 1963 version of the award.

Figure 11: The progression of the American Legion School Award (from left to right): the 1939 male version; the 1939 female version; the 1951 award; the 1959 award; and the 1973 award. Progression

This series of school award medals in its various types and varieties has been awarded more than a million times in the last 92 years. But the American Legion is a prodigious awarder of medals and has issued several other education-related awards for various subjects and aspects of character. For example, in 1938 it took over the National Oratorical Contest and has been administering that program since then. In 1973 the Patrick Henry Medal for Oratory used a version of the School Award Lamp of Knowledge reverse with the seal. The National Organization also has an ongoing Essay Award, Patriotic Award, Citizenship Award and Americanism Award. Once you move down from the national level, there are all kinds of specific subject awards given out at the state and local level. English, History and Civics medals are the three most often seen. Ore Vacketta has catalogued hundreds of American Legion medals, mostly national convention medals and the medals of the Department of Illinois.

To recap the historical narrative, the progression of badges is shown in Figure 11. For the advanced School Awards collector Table 1 should provide enough data to identify all the different types from inception to today.

Table 1: Types of the American Legion School Awards

JS #

Fig.#

Size

Metal

From

To

Notes

22-01

1,2

3-in

Bz

1922

1950

R. Tait McKenzie Design - Male awardees.

22-02

1,2

11/2-in

Bz

1939

1950

Hanging medal - Male

22-03

2

1/4-in

Ag

1922

1924

Uniface screwback pin - Male

22-04

2

3/4-in

Bz

1925

1950

Uniface screwback pin - Male

22-05

2

1/4-in

Bz

1925

1950

Uniface screwback pin - Male Phila.Badge Co

25-01

3,4

21/2-in

Bz

1925

1950

R. Tait McKenzie Design - Female awardees

25-02

3,4

11/4-in

Bz

1939

1950

Hanging medal - Female

25-03

4

1/4-in

Bz

1925

1950

Uniface pinback - Female

51-01

5,6

21/2-in

Bz

1951

1958

New Designs Obv. & Rev. - Unisex

51-02

5,6

11/4-in

Bz

1951

1958

Hanging medal - Unisex

51-03

6

3/4-in

Bz

1951

1962

Uniface pinback - Unisex

51-04

6

3/4-in

Bz

1951

1962

Uniface looped pendant - Female

59-01

7,6

2'/2-in

Bz

1959

1962

Revised Obv. Design with 51-01 reverse

59-02

7,6

11/4-in

Bz

1959

1962

Hanging medal with 51-01 reverse

59-03

6

3/4-in

10K GF

1959

1962

Uniface pinback of 51-01 reverse

63-01

7,8

21-in

Bz

1963

1972

Revised Rev. Legend - PATRIOTISM added

63-02

7,8

11/4-in

Bz

1963

1972

Hanging medal - Keeps 59-01 obverse

63-03

8

1/4-in

Bz

1963

2013

Uniface pinback - Still available in 1973

73-01

9,10

21/2-in

Bz

1973

1978

Recycled Obv - Revised Reverse

73-02

9,8

11/4-in

Bz

1973

1978

Hanging medal - Obv. & Rev. as 73-01

73-03

8

%-in

10K GF

1973

2013

Uniface pinback of 63-01 reverse

78-01

9,8

21/2-in

Bz

1978

2013

Recycled Obverse - Restored 63-01 Reverse

78-02

9,8

11/4-in

Bz

1978

2013

Recycled Obverse - Restored 63-01 Reverse

Varieties are another matter all together. Anytime more than a million types of a medal are struck over a long period of time varieties will abound. The most interesting from a design standpoint is the reworking of the word SCHOOL in the 1922 version of the boys' medal.

Figure 12: The word SCHOOL on the original 1922 medal.

Figure 12: The word SCHOOL on the original 1922 medal.

The overlapping "O"s is an elegant solution for the word SCHOOL (Figure 12) that is pressed for space. It is odd that the "C" eating the "H" and the barely interlocking "O"s (Figure 13) was deemed a better solution but it lasted for at least 25 years on both boys and girls medal and pin. The reverse as depicted on the silver pin has the reworked SCHOOL, plus more flexed eagle's wings and the numbers of rays around the seal reduced slightly and given a harder edge. This leads to the conclusion that the reverse of the medal was reworked very early on, maybe as early as 1922. This reworked reverse would have already existed in 1925 and would require only two word changes in the criteria. Otherwise, the medals had a common reverse.

Figure 13: The reworkfd word SCHOOL

Figure 13: The reworkfd word SCHOOL

The writer also suspects that when the dies were given to the national organization of the American Legion a decision was made to sharpen some of the soft modeling Dr. McKenzie had used on the obverse of both medals.

This is most evident on the obverse of the boys' medal with a more defined ship and church. Granted the church on the 1922 medal (Figure 14) is from a medal with some issues, the church is barely an outline but the reworked church is quite visible (Figure 15).

Figure 14: The original church (1922).

Figure 14: The original church (1922).

Figure 15: The reworked church (perhaps 1925 or 1927).

Figure 15: The reworked church (perhaps 1925 or 1927).

Likewise the obverse of the girls' medal was rearticulated and is most noticeable with the young girl's hair and profile (Figures 16 and 17). The stripes on the flag were also brushed up and given a more silken look.

Figure 16: The profile of the girl on the original medal (1925).

Figure 16: The profile of the girl on the original medal (1925).

In addition to these design modifications on the first two medals, other varieties exist including (1) the hallmark MEDALLIC ART CO. NY with and without the word BRONZE on the edge of the medal; and (2) the copyright (©) symbols run the full gamut from none, to obverse only, to reverse only, to appearing on both the obverse and reverse. The © symbol went away with the post-1950 medals but the author has not seen enough of the post-1950 medals to comment on what edge marks might or might not be stamped into them.

The pins are another area where varieties abound - screw back, pin back with either coil pin or swivel pin and open clasp, pin back with swivel pin and safety clasp, the various Medallic Arts Company reverse identifications, the Philadelphia Badge Company versions, the gold-filled pins, the dots between the words of the legend on the last pin design which seem to come and go at will, and perhaps others. The hanging badges also boast a variety of brooches for wearing the medals: slot, split and clutch-back seem to be the most common. There must be hundreds of varieties. Just identifying the types described took two years and a lot of helpful input.

The American Legion School Awards Program has had a 92-year run so far and it would be nice to see a new medal design introduced to mark its centennial in 2022. To take a page out of the American Legion playbook, a recycled version of the 2019 centennial medal would be most appropriate, maybe with its own internal thumb drive. Table 2 is a timeline recap to date.

The Legion School Award is almost certainly the most awarded school medal in history. It is not an attendance medal. The student doesn't earn it by just showing up. These medals only go to two graduates in any given class. It recognizes achievement, honors the graduate, and gives him or her a step up as they go out into the wider world to become the leaders of tomorrow. This email from Kit D. Watson, Department Adjutant, Pennsylvania American Legion to the writer on November 25, 2013 is a very personal account of the value of the American Legion School Award:

1922

1925

1939

1951

1959

1963

1973

1978 to Date

Male Design

Pin now bronze

Badge

Unisex Obverse

Obverse revised

Recycled obverse

 

Female Design

Badge

Unisex Reverse

1st Rev

2nd Rev

1st Rev. again

Figure 17: The reworked profile of the girl (perhaps 1927).

Figure 17: The reworked profile of the girl (perhaps 1927).

My mother was an accomplished woman who had her master's degree in English and taught for 40 years. In her later years she was downsizing asking each of her four sons what things we might wish to have as she simplified her home. On one of my visits she asked if the Legion was still recognizing youth achievements and I said we were. She went to her desk and pulled the medal from one of the top drawers. What struck me was after all these many years she kept her medal and was still proud of receiving it. The things we do to recognize our children and youth are effective and important to those who earn them. She received many awards and recognitions in her lifetime but was proud of this Legion medal! I had it encased in acrylic and proudly keep it on my desk.

Acknowledgements: This article is a revised and expanded version of a discussion of these medals entitled The American Legion School Awards which was published in The Clarion, volume 31, number 1, the triannual magazine of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists, January 2014 pages 7-16. The author is grateful for their permission to republish portions here. The author is indebted to John Sallay, the major authority on the American Legion School Award for his many contributions to this article. To recognize Sallay's preeminence in the field the type-numbering system in this article uses a "JS" prefix.

Endnotes:

  1. The American Legion School Award Medal Program; The American Legion National Americanism Commission, www.legion.org March 2010, p. 1.
  2. Pinola, Frank L. Commander, The American Legion, Department of Pennsylvania. "An Idea That Clicked." American Legion Monthly, vol. 9, no.1, The Legion Publishing Co., Indianapolis, Indiana, July 1930
  3. "American Legion School Award" (An Educational Activity for Legion Posts) 8-page pamphlet published by the American Legion National Headquarters, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1939 p. 6.

References:

  • Clark, Franklin Stetson. "A Real Reward For Real Boys." American Legion Weekly, vol. 4, no. 37, (Sept. 15, 1922), p. 13, 24-26
  • Eisert, Peter J. The National Convention Badges, Membership Badges, & Award Medals of The American Legion. Chicora, Pennsylvania: the author, 2004.
  • Pinola, Commander Frank L. "An Idea That Clicked." American Legion Monthly, vol. 9, no.1, July, 1930.
  • Radice, Terry. The History of The Pennsylvania American Legion. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylania: Stackpole Books, 1993.
  • Vacketta, Ore H. "American Legion Medals." TAMS Journal, vol. 16, no.3 (June, 1976), vol. 23, no.1, (Feb. 1983), vol. 29, no.3 (June 1989), vol. 36, no.2 (Apr. 1996).
  • The Library Division, American Legion National Headquarters, Indianapolis, Indiana (source for old emblem sales catalogs).
  • www.archive.legion.org (source for recent American Legion documents).

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