Volunteer breathes life into Meridian veterans post

McGruff the Crime Dog is just one of many personas Frank Griffith presents

awebb@idahostatesman.comMarch 20, 2014 

  • QUESTIONS ABOUT THE POST?

    Contact Commander Frank Griffith at 870-4981 or 871-9309.

  • INSIDE MCGRUFF'S HEAD

    Frank Griffith shared some of what he's learned getting inside the head of McGruff the Crime Dog:

    • He's out of luck if he puts on the McGruff head and gloves then gets an itch on his nose. He can't scratch.

    • To get cross-ventilation in the McGruff head, Griffith opens the mouth wide and directs it toward the breeze, which travels in the mouth and out a hole on top.

    • At one school, a teacher was wearing so much perfume that Griffith had a sneezing fit. Kids wondered what was going on with the dog.

    • Griffith didn't have to learn lines. McGruff wears a trench coat and walks on two legs, but he's a dog - and dogs don't talk. The lack of chatter doesn't stop kids from talking to him - including one child who came up after a presentation to tell Griffith/McGruff about being abused at home. McGruff mimed to the child to tell his police department escort. Now, presentations include an explanation that kids can confide in McGruff, or their teachers, if they have a problem.

    • Girls high-five more exuberantly than boys. Boys often prefer the fist-bump to the high-five. Lots of kids greet him with, "What's up, dawg?"

    • Not everybody can handle the demands, heat or claustrophobia. "A lot of people want to go in and play McGruff. But they can't stand to wear the dog head," said Griffith. "I never had that problem. I can put it on and everything's OK. I can go for hours."

Four years ago, when Vietnam Navy veteran Frank Griffith joined the Meridian Veterans of Foreign Wars post, members called him "the baby." At 60, he was the group's youngest member.

His fellow veterans fought in earlier wars such as World War II and Korea, and most were in their 80s.

To keep their nonprofit tax status, post members have to volunteer in their communities. Posts with extra hours can donate to posts short on hours. Griffith's post, which had about 90 members, was staying afloat thanks to charity hours.

"My post was living on borrowed time," said Griffith.

"I thought that the post was dying. Members weren't getting out into the community. No one knew we were even there. I'd talk to people about the VFW. They'd say, 'Where's that?' The post has been in the same place since the 1950s."

Griffith decided to turn things around. He started recruiting members, including younger veterans of more recent wars, such as Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I have a Navy hat. I wear it everywhere," said Griffith, who was drafted right out of his Sacramento high school at age 19 and landed in Vietnam in 1969. "People ask about my hat. We start talking. That's when I go into my recruiter mode."

The post has grown to 100 members. Griffith and the newer, younger veterans have put in so many volunteer hours that the Meridian post has reversed its situation and is now sharing its extra hours with other posts.

Griffith's volunteer tasks are wide and ranging. His most high-profile gig is playing McGruff the Crime Dog, visiting schools with members of the Meridian Police Department.

"This just touches the surface of the many ways Frank helps his community," said Barbara Hatch, volunteer coordinator with the Meridian Police Department.

Playing McGruff involves wearing a giant, hard-to-see-out-of canine head. Another challenge: a sore hand from high-fiving 500 elementary students in a row. Griffith now wears padded martial arts gloves under McGruff's mitten paws.

Out of costume, Griffith runs bingo games for the veterans at the State Veterans Home in Boise. He heads a leadership group in his senior living community. He volunteers every Tuesday at the information desk at Meridian City Hall. It's usually a peaceful job, said Griffith, save for the times people protest Rep. Raul Labrador, who keeps an office there, or when "people get rowdy" at tax time.

He's used to hard work. He and his wife, Kathleen, retired last year after running a group home for people with disabilities. Griffith is now commander of his post in Meridian. In April, he's running for a district seat that would help govern eight posts across the Treasure Valley. His other ambition: raising money for the Meridian post to buy its own building. It now shares space with two other military groups.

Griffith will soon join the volunteer police park patrol at Julius M. Kleiner Park. His duties will include watching over the Rock of Honor Veteran's Memorial that he helped establish, said Hatch.

"Our relationship with Frank is a win-win situation where his service not only benefits his post at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but the Meridian Police Department at the same time," she said.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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