As most military collectors realize, something in their life experience starts them on a path of collecting in an area of strong interest. In this author’s case, an aunt gave me a pair of WWI German medals, including an Iron Cross, which led to a lifetime love of collecting medallic art and medals of all varieties.
In recent years my primary focus has been collecting the local United States medals of WWI. A large variety of state, city, county and organization medals can be found in this area. Collectors soon learn that while most of the medals in this area show a variety of bronze planchet medals with different styles of ribbons, often larger WWI medals appear in a variety of plaques with presentation cases. Examples are seen in the WWI medals presented by the Orange County, Calif., and the American Car and Foundry Company.
In this pursuit of WWI medals I spotted a large bronze medal several years ago with a strong WWI theme and very reasonably priced. I learned it was the first example of an American Legion School award. Shortly after this first purchase I learned of another design variation of the American Legion school award. Ultimately, I discovered that there were seven variations of the award and that wearable medals with ribbons were also awarded.
The American Legion was first established in Paris in 1919 under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt to meet the needs and well-being of almost 2 million veterans returning from France after WWI. The American Legion is the nation’s largest wartime organization and was chartered by Congress in 1919.
By 1922, the American Legion had established a School Awards Program to honor graduating students. The history of the American Legion School awards was written by Frank L. Pinola in 1930 about the time the awards went national. An interesting quote from the history would be applicable even today. He wrote “certain grownups will fail in their duty toward today’s children if they do not make necessary allowances for the revolution in social standards and ways of living which has taken place in the United States in recent years." This inspired the American Legion, first in the department of Pennsylvania, and later nationally to establish awards for character development known as the American Legion School Awards.
The School Award program resulted from the efforts of Thomas Evans of Philadelphia while he was a member of the Americanism Commission of Pennsylvania. In order to foster the ideals of education, patriotism, and Americanism in young boys and girls, Evans gained the support of Philadelphia’s Legionnaires. At the next Legionnaires state convention, the School Award Program was adopted. Evans wanted to have an award for both boys and girls, but the first award was for boys only. It targeted boys in the eighth grade, but was so popular it was extended to include graduating seniors in 1927.
The first school award, which we will consider the type I version, was designed by a Legionnaire Dr. Robert Tait McKenzie (1867-1938), who was a British WWI veteran and a noted sculptor. (Coincidentally, this would be the first medal that I purchased which would lead to this article and discovering the different variations.) This first American Legion School award is a 3-inch diameter (76mm) bronze medallion featuring an obverse design featuring a soldier holding a rifle facing to the right and a sailor holding a rifle facing to the left. Found below the figures is the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis” within an exergue. Surrounding the soldier and sailor at the top is a large inscription “For God and Country.”
It should be noted that McKenzie’s initial is found near the bottom slightly above Semper Fidelis and the date of the design 1922. The reverse of the medal has three main features: an eagle with outspread wings at the top, an inscribed plaque in the center, and the American Legion emblem at the bottom. The plaque is inscribed with “American Legion/School Award/courage, honor, service/leadership, scholarship.” The background is filled with rays that emanate from the American Legion emblem. Wearable versions of each of the seven types exist.
By 1925, an award for girls was approved. Again, the strikingly beautiful medallion design was executed by Dr. McKenzie. The slightly smaller female version is 2 3/8 inch, or 62mm, in diameter and shows a three-quarter figure of a young woman who is gazing at the top of a U.S. flag that she is holding. The figure is encircled by the inscription “For God and Country.” Below the “and” is the inscription of the Marine Corps’ Semper Fidelis as found in the boy’s type I version.
The girls medal is considered the type 2 American Legion School Award. It should also be noted that just to the left of the figures shoulder is a stylized initial of Dr. Mckenzie and the date 1925. The reverse of the girls medallion is similar to the reverse of the boys medallion except that the qualities inscribed on the reverse changed. Over the years the selection process has remained the same. As in the type 1, a wearable version is also available as shown just as for our type I example.
The American Legion School Awards program grew rapidly through the years and was actively supported by the American Legion throughout the United States. The type 3 award saw another major change in design following World War II. The new version was 63mm (2 ½ inches) in diameter with a new obverse design showing a tall army soldier standing at attention surrounded by a sailor to his left and an airman to his right with an array of soldiers behind him. “For God and Country” was retained as well as the Marine Corps motto in the exergue. The reverse now had a completely new design with a more scholastic theme. In the center was a lighted lamp resting on an open book and behind the lamp and book was a crossed olive branch and quill. Rays emanated from the lamps flame and the inscription “American/Legion/School Award.” Encircling the center motif was a band with the qualities of “Courage, Honor, Leadership, Scholarship,Service." The American Legion Seal was at the bottom.
A slight modification of the type 3 medal took place in 1951. The change was responding to a new attitude toward women in society in general. The award recognized the important contribution of women in all branches of the armed forces during WWII. Maybe more importantly, encouraged by the fact that more Legionnaires were women, the Legion adopted a design similar to the type 3, but with a WAVE and WAC added to the obverse along with the male Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine images. This type 4 version had an obverse that was the same as for the type 3, retaining the same inscription “For God and Country” as well as the Marine Corps motto in the exergue. The only change was the addition of the WAVE and a WAC. The reverse remained the same as the type 3, with the American Legion Seal at the bottom. By 1963 a small change was made to the reverse of the type 4 School Award when the word “Patriotism” was added to the qualities. This is considered a type 5 version of the Legion School Award.
For almost the next 20 years the Legion School Award remained unchanged. In 1972, a big change in the design was adopted which removed any reference to gender and the Marine Corps motto was omitted from the design for the first time. This type 6 version used the reverse of the type 5 medal with only a slight modification by removing the emblem of the American Legion at the bottom and replacing it with a bundled sheaf as the new obverse. The new reverse would feature a very martial looking eagle with outspread wings and grasping an olive branch. In the center of the eagle was the American Legion emblem, and below the branch was the inscription “For God and Country.” Wearable versions were still retained.
The current version of the Legion School Award is considered a type 7 version is identical in every respect to the type 6 with the exception that the bundled sheaf on the bottom of the obverse has again been replaced by the American Legion Seal.
All the medals in the author’s collection are stamped near the 6 o’clock position with “Medallic Art Co. N.Y.” and the word “Bronze” along the edge. Sometimes, the name of the recipient is indicated in the caption for the images of the type 2 medal.
These American Legion medals make for a striking collection, especially since they are authorized by America’s largest military veteran organizations. I have also discovered medals issued by the American Legion Auxiliary. One such example shows an early Auxiliary medal from the department of Pennsylvania features an eagle with outspread wings facing an American flag standing on a plaque engraved Barbara L. Jones. Around the edge are the words “American Legion Auxiliary Department of Penna School Award.” The reverse of the 49mm diameter bronze medal shows a girl holding a torch to the left of a woman warrior holding an America Legion Shield. The inscription around the outside edge includes the words “Honor-Scholarship-Service-Courage-Leadership-Americanism.”
Astute collectors will recognize additional variations of the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary school awards, and likely find it easy to appreciate the beauty of the different designs cherished by thousands of school boys and girls who were awarded the medals over the past 100 years.
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