Pittsburgh has always been a special place for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Though the organization traces its roots to 1899, it was not until a meeting of five veteran organizations in 1914 in Pittsburgh at the old Schenley Hotel (now the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union building) that the VFW was formally formed.
Starting Saturday, for the first time since that historic year, the VFW will hold its national convention in the city where it first got its name, and up to 12,000 veterans and VFW Ladies Auxiliary members will begin a five-day gathering at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to discuss issues crucial to the struggling but still important organization and veterans generally.
“I’m not sure exactly why it took so long to have them come back, we’re just happy to have them,” said Tom Loftus, spokesman for VisitPittsburgh, the city’s tourism agency that helped win the city the VFW convention.
“Coming back to Pittsburgh after 101 years is a big story, a good story,” said John Biedrzycki of Robinson, an Army veteran of the Korean War. During the convention, he will be installed as the VFW’s national commander, its top post.
Mr. Biedrzycki, a retired Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher who grew up in McKees Rocks, is probably best known in the area as the voice of Pittsburgh’s Veterans Day parade in Downtown, annually announcing each group in the parade from the viewing stand on the Boulevard of the Allies for most of the past 30 years. He now is senior vice commander in chief of the organization.
Moving up to national commander — the first from the Pittsburgh area since 1972 — in his hometown “is exciting to me, and it is certainly a big responsibility,” he said.
Among the actions he may oversee as the national commander is a historic step that the VFW hopes reflects a willingness of its membership to move forward.
The VFW will contemplate making the Ladies Auxiliary gender neutral, just the “Auxiliary,” to encourage more participation, something that was proposed and voted down in a voice vote during last year’s convention in St. Louis.
The VFW says it has about 1.2 million members, and about 700,000 Ladies Auxiliary members, a figure that it believes could go up significantly if the auxiliary became gender neutral and husbands or sons of veterans were allowed to join as well.
Though the organization’s membership is down nearly half from its 1992 peak of 2.1 million — primarily because so many World War II veterans are dying — Mr. Biedrzycki said one of the changes he is already proudest of is that with more female veterans coming back from overseas, female membership has increased 100 percent since 2010.
“And we can add even more,” he said.
VFW spokeswoman Randi Law said dramatic strides have been made to modernize and update the veterans group.
“The typical picture of the VFW being a bunch of veterans sitting around the bar telling war stories is past,” she said. “Young families want more family-friendly facilities and activities from the VFW.”
While many posts have closed, many of them merged with other posts to become more efficient economically, she said.
Still other posts have closed their bars and created picnic spaces, playgrounds and even fire pits for families to get together.
One conference workshop will be hosted by the historic VFW Post 1 in Denver, which has used social media and other novel methods — including putting up beehives on its property and holding beekeeping classes — to recruit younger veterans and find new ways to raise money.
“It works for them,” Ms. Law said.
The conference will also feature a keynote speech July 20 by Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, who Mr. Biedrzycki expects will give a state-of-the-VA overview.
While that and the rest of the conference is for members only to attend in person, the VFW will live stream the conference online for people to watch.
Mr. Biedrzycki said he hopes people tune in at some point, and appreciate the work the VFW is doing for veterans.
“It says a lot about the tenor of our nation how we treat our veterans,” he said.