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Laurel American Legion member mixes patriotism with enthusiasm

Lesley Brinton is worried. She is uneasy about the future of the role Memorial Day plays in the hearts of Americans. Over the years, she noted, the solemn occasion has been eclipsed by its signal as the gateway to summer fun.  

"It's all about remembering and honoring people who sacrificed their lives" on the battlefield, she said. "It's what my husband, John, and I are teaching our son, Liam. Our fallen soldiers give us our freedoms," she added softly, "but Memorial Day is getting watered down, generation by generation."

Brinton, 49, of West Laurel, said honoring America's military propelled her to join American Legion Post 60 in Laurel. As the daughter of a World War II Navy veteran, she grew up in suburban Pittsburgh cherishing the story of how America gained its freedom, while preaching the importance of preserving and protecting it at any price.

The latest reminder of that sacrifice will be unfurled on Sunday, May 25 at Historic Ivy Hill Cemetery on Sandy Spring Road. The morning's first ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m. at the Legion's monument. At 11:30 a.m., the Legion will join with the city of Laurel for a second observance. Legion Commander Lee Luby will be the featured speaker.

One of Brinton's roles in connection with the Legion and freedom is coordinating the annual essay writing contest for students from third through eighth grade at Laurel Elementary and Bond Mill Elementary schools. This year's theme is "How Can I Show My Patriotism?" A total of 87 entries were submitted, Brinton said.

"It's a wonderful program," she said in her signature upbeat tone. It keeps those thoughts at the forefront of the minds."

Armed with fearless and relentless optimism, Brinton blooms where she is planted, a joyful soul with a soft heart and an iron will. Her level of community outreach is near legendary.

"Lesley's always there for our post," said Luby, the Post 60 commander. "Being a tax-exempt organization, it's very difficult to follow the tax laws. She's a genius on that part and one of the most devoted members. I don't know what we'd do without her."  

'A ton of energy'

The hours she donates to Legion programs is but one piece of Brinton's output. For the past 20 years, Brinton, a certified public accountant, has held down the demanding job of controller at Adas Israel, a conservative synagogue in upper Northwest Washington, D.C.

Brinton holds a degree in fine arts from Indiana University in Pennsylvania. But she also knew the odds of landing a job in show business as a singer or actor were stacked against her.  

"My mom said, 'Lesley, you've got a classical education, but you'd better marry well.' "

Embracing her mom's good counsel, Brinton headed south to Maryland for a job managing the old Roy Rogers in White Oak.

"I loved the people aspect, but I said I wasn't going to work this hard for this little bit of money."

She left for Greenbelt and a stint at Denny's, all the while dreaming of a more meaningful career.   

In time, she landed a job at the National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals. The money was better and she found she was comfortable working with numbers. "When the controller broke her back, I got the job," she said. "Sometimes, life pops a situation, and you pop into it."

Determined to keep advancing, Brinton decided to challenge herself in a new way: To prepare for the Maryland Certified Public Accountant exam. For 10 months, to prepare for the arduous, two-day test, she tackled six classes, mostly through Anne Arundel Community College.

With the prestigious letters "CPA" added to her solid resume, she found herself on an interview at Adas Israel. During the interview, out of the blue, she recalled, "a delivery man showed up. He said, 'I'm delivering the Ten Commandments.' "

The interviewer, she said, stopped mid-sentence and replied, "That's great! We've been waiting for them for 5,000 years!" 

For Brinton, that was the closer. "I come from a family all about making jokes and being witty." She was hired.  

Sipping water in the synagogue's quiet learning center in the bowels of the imposing edifice on the edge of Rock Creek Park, Brinton waxed about how she tries to extend a hand to her Laurel neighbors. 

"The first project I did for the Legion," she remarked, "was I called Sheri Bell," at the former Reality in-patient addiction treatment center on Main Street. "We had furniture, things like rugs and lamps" to donate.

As a member of the Post 60 Auxiliary, Brinton tends to the needs of the pantry at Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services. With funds supplied by the Sons of the Legion and the Auxiliary, Brinton makes a monthly shopping trip, purchasing non-perishable items like anned tuna, and delivering the food to LARS.

"I take Liam with me and I tell him, 'We really have a good life here in America. We're so blessed.' "

Each season when cold air descends, Brinton is a familiar face in the Winter Haven program. The longtime outreach, sponsored by the Laurel Clergy Association, provides shelter for the homeless in individual houses of worship on a rotating basis. Brinton works primarily through her own parish, St. Mary of the Mills, but is available "whenever I'm needed" at other facilities.   

Another member of the Legion who knows Brinton well is Mike Obremski.

"I can honestly say a lot of stuff that happens down here, Lesley is behind it," he said.

"She never wants to take credit. If Lesley says `can we do this?' we take it she's already checked on stuff. We don't worry about it." 

Brinton leaves a formidable footprint in other quarters around Laurel. When organizations like Side by Side come calling, Brinton rolls up her sleeves.

The nonprofit empowers parents to join forces with their children's schools to foster academic success. Whenever the group needs advice about finances, for example, Brinton's on it.  

"I'm very fond of Joe Murchison," she said of the group's executive director and her West Laurel neighbor.

Recently, she added, tongue firmly planted in cheek, "they suckered me into being the treasurer [of the PTO] of Liam's school, Bond Mill Elementary, next year."  

Even with a demanding job at the synagogue, and all the various and sundry responsibilities being a wife, mother and friend to hundreds, the word "slower" isn't part of Brinton's lexicon. She acknowledged she can't see a time when she is no longer one with the community.  

"I'll go wherever I'm needed," she vowed. "I've always had a ton of energy and I've always been involved. It's just how I am."

At the synagogue, Brinton works closely with two others in the fast-paced accounting department.

"Lesley is a wonderful person," enthused Rita Nicholls, the accounts manager. "She's very easy to work with and to talk to. Lesley's also very understanding and very thorough. If … she leaves, I'm leaving." 

As is the case in most workplaces, stress can set in. At the synagogue, when things get tight, Brinton will stop and remind herself and Nicholls that "we're not doing brain surgery here!" It's then, she went on, "you've got to throw your pen down and go and get a pizza or go to Happy Hour."

"And vice-versa!" Brinton chimed in. "It's family-oriented, a different environment."

Growing up in a tight-knit family in suburban Pittsburgh , Brinton recalled, helped shape and inform her commitment to public service. Her mother was a housewife, while her father worked as a district manager for a company that sold water heaters.

"He had clients and travelled on the East Coast," she said. "They were both role models."

One episode during her childhood that is seared into her soul, she emphasized, was when word spread during the Vietnam War that Air Force Col. Robert Sawhill Jr., was taken prisoner of war by the Viet Cong. Although Brinton was very young, she vividly recalled how a campaign was mounted to wear bracelets until her fellow Pittsburgh-area native was freed from captivity. She also had two more ties to Sawhill.

"Bob Sawhill's cousin lived across the street from us," she said. "His mother was my second-grade teacher. It was a huge story that has always stuck with me. I'll always have that memory."

Back upstairs in her cheery office at the synagogue, surrounded by shelves brimming with colorful souvenirs representing her beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, Brinton paused and grew pensive. Given her genetic makeup, she wondered, perhaps destiny was calling. It wasn't very long ago, she said, that she learned her grandfather was not only a certified public accountant, "but also commander of the West Orange, N.J. American Legion." 

Drawing on the noble labors of her grandfather as a fitting inspiration, Brinton offered this advice to anyone considering easing out of their comfort zone and helping give a boost to others.

"Giving makes you feel better about yourself," she promised. "It's spiritual, of course. It enriches your soul."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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