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Billings Marine Corps League member Tom Smith looks to boost membership in the organization's Eugene Sara chapter.

Billings’ Red Lion Hotel and Convention Center will host the Marine Corps League’s national convention in 2019. That ought to give Tom Smith enough time to grow the local Eugene Sara Marine Corps League detachment into the size and strength he hopes it will become.

“What an honor,” said Smith, 54, a Billings resident who served a three-year Marine hitch during the early 1980s. “We will need tons of bodies, but already the community has rallied behind us.”

Last summer Ron Spence, the Red Lion’s general manager, worked with Stefan Cattarin, Visit Billings’ sales manager, to convince the organization to choose Billings over Phoenix for the 2019 convention that could attract up to 1,000 Marine Corps veterans and their spouses.

“I was very excited to try to get this group to come to Billings,” Spence said. “Not only is it a good piece of business, but it’s good for the community.”

He said he and Cattarin will be at the Marine Corps League’s 2018 national convention in Buffalo, New York, this August, “doing a little relationship-building and telling them what to expect in Billings.”

“I’m a veteran too, and anytime I can help branches out, I do so,” Spence said. “When you put on a convention like this, you want to do it right for them, because they deserve it.”

“Ron’s probably the last person to toot his own horn, but he is a huge supporter of service men and women. It’s an honor to host them. It feels like a badge,” said Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings. “It’s important for us to make sure they have a great time here. They could go anywhere, and it speaks volumes to the kind of destination we have and the people we have representing us.”

With attractions and personalities including the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Yellowstone Kelly, and Native American culture and sites, Cattarin said the hope is that many attendees will remain for tours that will be offered post-conference.

"Veterans tell me they don't want to go to another museum. Most of them have seen them already," Cattarin said. "They want something new, and we've got a lot of great military history in our community." 

Smith said the local Marine Corps League detachment hopes to grow not only to help host the 2019 convention but to augment the work being done by a handful of Billings agencies — the Salvation Army, the Community Crisis Center, Tumbleweed and Independence Hall, a 20-bed transitional housing facility run by Volunteers of America. The Marine Corps League is also noted for providing a color guard detail during military funerals.

“We are looking to expand the organization into a much greater footprint,” he said of the local detachment. “It’s a storied organization celebrating 40 years of service to the Billings community, but unfortunately our membership is really low. It needs some new blood.”

The Eugene Sara chapter has 14 active members, virtually all of them 70 or older, Smith said. “It’s an opportunity to once again serve as a Marine, to experience the brotherhood and esprit de corps,” he said. “In November and December everybody opens their pocketbooks to bless people, but we want to do that year-round. We want to be a voice in our community to say, ‘This is what’s going on, and here’s what’s needed.’”

The agencies that local Marines work with “have all told us they need male mentors — somebody to be the hands and feet of the community in the same way we served the country,” he said.

Among the most fulfilling work, he said, is mentoring Young Marines, a youth education and service program for people 8 to 18. A new class begins in March, with information available at www.eugenesara.com.

“I have coached football, baseball, basketball and track for 30 years, and I get more of a kick out of this than I ever did coaching,” Smith said. “I see myself as a Marine coach.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.