A Minnesota PBS Initiative

"Serving Those Who Serve" - Servicemen's Center of MN

The year was 1970 and the United States was becoming more and more embroiled in a so-called “military action” that history would later record as the War in Vietnam. With each passing day, the “hawks” and “doves” were becoming more vocal in the views as to what the United States position in the Far East should be. Demonstrations became an almost daily occurrence and public opinion was sharply divided. 

It was in this atmosphere that many young men and women in the military service found themselves traveling from base to base for training or headed for the battles zones of the Far East. They often encountered long delays in strange airports awaiting their flight connections. Hours on an uncomfortable airport bench between flights were not uncommon and sometimes an overnight delay meant finding a bench or a place on the airport terminal floor to curl up to try to get some sleep.

On several occasions upon awakening from a nap the service people found that a thief had made off with some of their luggage. The military travelers of the day were left pretty much on their own to cope with any problems or inconveniences they might encounter. 

Three photos of civilian women, servicemen, and airport staff meeting and going over plans.

One such military traveler was Scott Purdum, U.S. Navy, who related the plight of his fellow military service travelers to his mother, Mrs. J Thomas “Maggie” Purdum of Wayzata.

It was Scott’s story to his mother that triggered the actions which eventually led to establishing the Servicemen’s Center (now called the Armed Forces Service Center) at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport. The last letter she received from Scott again questioned as to whether or not she’d done anything about getting a lounge for military personnel.

With the concept of establishing a lounge facility at the airport for traveling military members, Mrs. Purdum contacted various social agencies in the metropolitan area for assistance with little luck. Her next approach was to seek help from local veteran and military organizations and there she found immediate interest.

The American Legion, VFW, Retired Officers Association, their auxiliaries, and individuals in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines plus a number of private citizens joined with her to approach the Metropolitan Airports Commission with the idea of building a facility to serve transient military personnel enroute through the Twin Cities terminal. 

The embryo organization’s first step was to assemble data to support the need for the facility. Statistics were obtained from the airlines and the Traveler’s Aid society indicating that about 300,000 military travelers had transited the airport in 1969. Of that number, 79,000 were traveling on standby status and thus were subject to long delays on many occasions. Also, many of these travelers were inexperienced in the ways of air travel and had no one at the airport to assist them. The need for the facility was evident. 

The organizing committee realized there would be a need for financial support and fund raising efforts produced excellent results. The Fifth District American Legion made a $3,000 contribution. As news filtered back to the other interested groups funds began to arrive. 

Approximately 4,000 people braved a 36-degree-below-zero wind chill to attend the Center’s grand opening on the evening of November 22, 1970.

By the time the Center came into actual being, more than $6,000 was on hand. After several preliminary sessions, a formal meeting to draw up rules and temporary by-laws was held on August 4, 1970. 

Three weeks later, on September 12, Mrs. Purdum and representatives of the supporting organizations were granted an audience with the Metropolitan Airport Commission to make their presentation for the Center. The major concerns raised by the commissioners regarded the financial stability of the founding organization and its ability to build and sustain the volunteer corps that would be needed to operate the Center. 

Servicemen sitting on leather seats in a lounge, Christmas tree in the background.

1970 Nov 22 - Servicemen's Center Grand Opening "Serving Those Who Serve."

A woman with a drink tray serving a sailor, with a smile.

1970 Nov 22 - Volunteer serving visitors in the Servicemen's Center lounge on Opening Day.

The Servicemen’s Center, Incorporated of Minnesota, a non-profit organization, became official on November 13, 1970 with Mrs. J. Thomas Purdum, Philip E. Ploumen and Fred Wanner as incorporators.

Officers elected to head the first board of directors included Mrs. Purdum as president, Mr. Ploumen as treasurer, Mr. Wanner as secretary, and Major Marty Brandtner, ULSMC (a Minnesota native who served as the Director of Operations, J-3 Joint Staff, retired at the grade of Lieutenant General) as vice president.

Jeanne Morford, who served as a volunteer on the first day of the Center’s opening, continues to volunteer on a weekly basis at the Center.  

Approximately 4,000 people braved a 36 degree below zero wind chill to attend the Center’s grand opening on the evening of November 22, 1970.

A color guard made up representatives from all branches of the military escorted the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as the airport director to perform the ribbon cutting. Also in attendance were commanders and ranking officials of virtually all the major military unit in Minnesota.

At 9:00 p.m. the Center was officially opened for operations. 

Today, the Center provides travelers with supervised storage of baggage, food and beverage service, color TV, free Wi-Fi access, two laptop PCs, printer and fax, books, magazines, free cell phone for emergency calls, separate bunk rooms that will accommodate 20 males and 6 females, bathroom with changing table and various toiletry supplies, and wake up service.

The center operates around the clock 24 hours a day of the year, 365 days of the year, and has never closed.

A paid executive director supervises the approximately 200 volunteers and day-to-day business. Four additional part-time employees provide operational support to the executive director.

To date, the Center has served over a million U.S. military personnel and their dependents, along with U.S. Public Health Service and military members of allied nations, since opening in November 1970. Overall governing of the Center is controlled by a board of directors and an executive committee who formulate policy, raise the funds and recruit the volunteers. 

A news clipping from October 19, 1970 with an image of Maggie Purdum.

Wayzata woman nears goal. From the Minneapolis Star.

In addition to providing food, shelter and assistance to personnel that pass thru our airport, the center has a core group of volunteers who also serve as “troop greeters.” These dedicated volunteers have welcomed over 350 military charter flights, 1064 military charter buses to MSP, and hosted 21 Twin Cities Honor Flights since 2008. The people who devote their volunteer time are recognized annually at an awards dinner with the presentation of pins, attachments, and plaques signifying the number of hours each has served. 

The center has been highly recognized and saluted because of the service it has rendered. More than 120 plaques and certificates of appreciation from military units, ranking officers, governmental agencies, political leaders, veterans’ organizations, and civic and business leaders cover the walls of the main lounge. Notable among these citations are four received from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two from governors of Minnesota, one from the nations’ top political address, the White House. 

In 2012, the Center was selected as one of 20 top finalists in the White House’s Joining Forces Community Challenge (JFCC). 

Scott Purdum lost his life while serving in Vietnam.

Biographical Details

Story Subject: Military Service

Story Themes: Coming Home, Death and Loss, Family, Giving Back, Legacy, Minnesota Armed Forces Service Center, Saint Paul, St Paul, Veterans of Foreign Wars

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