Don Albitz has been going to the same American Legion in Monroeville for 39 years — long enough to earn himself the moniker “The King.”
Nearly every night, Albitz, of Penn Hills, sits at his spot at the corner of the bar, orders a pitcher of beer and smokes through a pack of cigarillos as he watches whatever sport is playing on the club’s several televisions.
Soon, Albitz will have to change up his routine. Smoking at Monroeville American Legion Gold Star Post 820 at 4339 Old William Penn Highway will be banned beginning Jan. 1.
Albitz, 82, said the pending ban only bothers him a little.
“I can go without it. I’m not a habitual smoker,” the soft-spoken Marine veteran said.
The decision came when members of the private club approached the Legion’s board of directors earlier this year to request they ban smoking in the facility. The board put the idea to a vote and approved it in September.
The move aligns with a statewide trend to try to clean the state’s indoor air. Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act, adopted in 2008, placed a ban on smoking in most businesses. The law, however, allows bars to apply for an exemption if food accounts for 20 percent or less of their overall sales and no one under 18 is permitted to enter.
The Legion, being a private club, was not required to get an exemption from the state Department of Health, said Regis Dugan, the Legion’s board president.
Dugan expects the smoking ban to attract more members to the bar and club.
“It may bring a lot of the older veterans who had to quit smoking or with health issues,” he said. The Legion’s membership sits around 300 currently, Dugan said. That number reflects a steady decrease.
Niccole Swiatkowski, a Legion bartender, suspects the move will not help boost membership. She expects the ban to lead to a loss in revenue and veterans losing out on the Legion’s charity events.
“They’re going to lose a lot of customers, I can tell you that,” Swiatkowski said. “Most of the members here smoke. If we lose just half of them, we’re taking away from the veterans.”
Swiatkowski said she also is irked by how the decision was made. She said social members, who are not veterans but still pay yearly dues, did not have the chance to vote on the issue.
“We didn’t have a voice. The board made the decision,” she said, adding that most of the Legion’s regulars are social members.
Lou Smith, a veteran and longtime member of the Legion, is happy with the change and expects it to attract a younger crowd.
“It smells so bad in there. And when you leave, your clothes stink, your hair stinks, you stink. It’s terrible in there,” Smith said. “A lot of young people are health nuts. They don’t like smoking.”
When asked about how the board made the decision, Smith said: “I’m a veteran. I have rights as a veteran. Most of the other people smoking there are citizens, but they’re not veterans. They’re not members — they’re guests. If they don’t understand that, then they can go to another bar. We’ve decided that nobody’s going to smoke there.”
On one recent night, during “Thursday Night Football,” the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Vince Williams intercepted a wild toss in the first quarter and ran 17 yards for a pick-six.
The entire American Legion erupted in hoots and hollers. Then the bar area filled with a thicker haze of celebratory cigarette — and cigarillo — smoke.
One of the men who lit up was Dave Hysong, 51, of Greensburg. The auxiliary member who has belonged to the Sons of Veterans for about 15 years said he flat-out disagrees with the smoking ban.
“I don’t agree with it. We drink. We smoke. If you don’t like it, don’t come here,” he said.
Hysong said he hasn’t renewed his membership yet and he suspects other members who are smokers are weighing whether to renew or go to one of the few bars that still allow smoking inside.
“But I’ll still come here,” Hysong said, adding that he’s been going to the Legion with his father since he was 7. He grew up in Garden City, where the Legion is located.
“It’s like family here,” he said before taking a long drag from his cigarette.
He said he will follow the rule by smoking either outside or in the Legion’s newly designated indoor smoking room in the back of the building.
The Legion’s leadership is raising money to clean the facility of years worth of smoke. The Legion launched an online fundraiser to raise $20,000 for the cleaning. As of Nov. 9, no money was raised.
To donate, visit GoFundMe.com and search for Gold Star Post 820 Clean Up Fund or send donations to American Legion Post 820, 4339 Old William Penn Highway, Monroeville, PA 15146.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter @dillonswriting.