Jack Lite is the oldest active member of Jewish War Veterans Post 644 in St. Louis. He has held every volunteer local and state leadership role since joining the group in 1960. Lite, 95, is a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth and now serves as Post 644’s judge advocate. In that position, he delivers invocations and makes rulings, which requires a knowledge of regulations.
“I know the bylaws almost by heart,” he said. “If someone has a question, they call me, and I try to keep them going in a straight line.”
Another project the nonagenarian has shepherded for years is maintaining the group’s memorial center, an archival collection of medals, uniforms, rifles, and mementos from Jewish military veterans from the St. Louis area. His volunteer work on behalf of veterans over the past 60 years has been important to the post, according to his fellow JWV members.
“Jack has been very influential and a key person as far as keeping the memorial center around,” said Monroe Ginsburg, chaplain of Post 644.
Leslie Birenbaum, the post’s junior vice president, added that “Jack has always reminded us that we still need to honor veterans’ service to our country.”
The national Jewish War Veteran organization was founded in 1896. JWV looks out for the welfare of all veterans, not just Jewish veterans. JWV Post 644 also partners with the Kaufman Fund, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization that provides food, tax preparation and other services for veterans. Any veteran who has an honorable discharge can become a member of the Jewish War Veterans. The post also welcomes patron members, supporters of the group who did not serve in the military.
From KP to Quartermaster
Lite attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a member of ROTC. His military career began when he was 23. He was drafted in 1951 at the outset of the Korean War. After reporting to the 28th division at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, he was placed on KP duty.
“I was the only guy assigned to the mess hall to clean the grease trap, which hadn’t been cleaned for months,” said Lite. “The smell was horrible. Then one day, I got an assignment to work with the quartermaster. That was for what they called ‘ration breakdown’ and ‘clothing breakdown.’ Well, I didn’t know anything about clothing, but I knew a lot about rations. I grew up in the grocery business.”
Before his military service, Lite already had years of experience working in his father’s North St. Louis store, Tower Meat Company. He knew the grocery business, which made him a natural at distributing supplies. He spent most of the next two years filling orders for ammunition, uniforms, meat and produce.
“I was very familiar with what they were doing,” Lite said. “The lieutenant noted that, and he said, ‘How would you like to be assigned permanently to me?’ Once a month, we had ration breakdowns where we got the orders from the mess stewards at the various mess halls, and we would divide them up and load them on a truck. I would take inventory. We also were in charge of explosives, and when they would come in for field duty where they were going to use explosives, They would come in with a requisition, and I would fill their order.”
At one point, while overseeing a commissary, Lite was called in to see a major for an accounting issue. Military commissaries are designed to operate as break-even distribution centers. Lite’s center showed a 40% profit. That’s because he was using his dry-goods business expertise to be efficient. His commissary had the same profit margin as Tower Meats. The officer told Jack he couldn’t show a profit.
“So I worked it out with a guy at the quartermaster headquarters,” he said. “At the end of the month, I’d go over to him and I said, ‘Did you have any lettuce you had to throw away?’ He said he had two cases, so I said ‘Charge me for them.’ I was paying for all his garbage. And he was so happy, and my major was happy. I made one and a half percent the second month, and they never bothered me about profit again.”
‘Right away, they made me an officer’
After his discharge from the military, Lite went back to helping his father in the family business; eventually, he ran the store. He sold it to a group of Schnuck Markets employees who were striking out on their own and liked what they saw when they visited Tower Meats.
Lite was 52 and newly retired. He stayed busy working as a freelance meat-cutter. In 1962, he met Mahlon Rubin, a founder of the accounting firm RubinBrown. Rubin, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was the Post 644 commander. He asked Lite to join the post.
“He said, ‘You’re going to join,’” Lite said. “So I joined, and right away, they made me an officer. I was the chaplain. All I had to do was memorize the prayers. Then I proceeded to work up through the ranks until I became commander of the post.”
At that time, there were three JWV posts in Missouri. Following World War II, the St. Louis JWV post was a major part of their social lives. It regularly held carnivals and dances. As membership dwindled over the years, fewer Jewish veterans joined and now Missouri has just two posts. Kansas City Post 605 members have an annual meeting with Post 644 in Columbia, where Lite is now the senior statesman.
A version of this story originally ran in the St. Louis Jewish Light.