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Man learns deal's grip not so firm after years

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


Howard L. "Pat" Laursen was sorting the mail at the Dunedin Post Office on the Sunday morning Pearl Harbor was attacked. As a young father, he needed his wife Mary's permission to join the Navy. She thought about saying no but figured he would resent it. So she signed.

After the war he came home to Dunedin, went back to a career at the post office and joined the local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He and Mary raised four sons and had 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. They still live in Dunedin. They have been married more than 60 years.

These are the recurring themes of the life of Pat Laursen, 86 years old: His family. The post office. Dunedin. And VFW Post 2550, located on Douglas Avenue, across from the baseball stadium, just north of the Dunedin Senior Citizens Center.

This brings us to a small patch of land just south of the VFW, 200 feet by 186 feet. A wooden sign there declares: VETERANS MEMORIAL PARK. There is an old swing set, sliding board and monkey bars. A dirt driveway circles the lot.

For the past 49 years, Laursen and his fellow VFW members have operated under the belief that this piece of land belonged to them. Laursen used to mow it himself. The vets pay for their charity efforts by selling parking at $5 a pop during baseball games.

But one recent day they discovered a man digging a hole in "their" park. He told the vets he was there to test the ground's percolation -- for a new parking lot. The senior center is expanding. The city needs the parking.

According to the official records, it turns out the city of Dunedin in fact owns the land that the VFW calls "Veterans Memorial Park." It is listed as part of the senior center property.

Yet Laursen remembers that in 1952, VFW officers met with city officials and struck a handshake deal to give the post the park.

"We had a friendly meeting," he wrote to me. "One of the city members asked, what if we split it between us. ... Knowing we did not have much money and I would be caring for the upkeep, I suggested 200 feet. ... We all shook hands on the agreement.

"I have been asked what the VFW paid for our park. My answer has always been, no money, but a great cost to the nine boys from Dunedin and all the other boys from all over the USA."

There is evidence to back up Laursen's account. In 1952, the City Commission passed a resolution saying it intended to give the vets part of the land as soon as any questions about the city's ownership were cleared up. That is the last known mention of it.

Now the post has hired a lawyer.

I talked with John Lawrence, who is Dunedin's city manager, and John Hubbard, the city attorney. Both men had respect and sympathy for the VFW post.

And yet, what is a responsible city officer supposed to do -- fork over the land based on an unfulfilled and unconfirmed handshake deal from a half-century ago? The senior center expansion is worthy and needed. The center serves thousands of people just like the Laursens and their VFW friends.

"I hope this can be resolved in a friendly way," Lawrence told me. The city is willing to make sure the VFW's concerns are addressed. If it's a perceived lack of respect for veterans, then the city will make sure to show that respect. If it's the loss of revenue for the post's charity efforts, the post can still use the lot during games.

I asked Laursen and his friends at the post exactly what it is they want.

"We want our property," he answered, voice cracking. They believe a deal is a deal, even if it was done a half-century ago, in an earlier age, when men returning from war could shake hands with their neighbors and go home satisfied that something real had occurred.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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