Bill Danko was on a car ride back from visiting family in Oregon when he received a phone call from his post commander to be notified of a surprise announcement: He'd won one of the most prestigious, selective awards in the state's veteran nonprofit realm -- Legionnaire of the Year.
"I was shocked," Danko said. "I didn't expect that. To even be considered among some of the people I've worked with at that level, it's just very, very meaningful."
He was selected by the American Legion, a nonprofit organization that serves and advocates for U.S. veterans, as the 2022 California Legionnaire of the Year. Receiving the award means being nominated and chosen out of over 75,000 members of the group from all over the state.
Danko, a Navy veteran from Pleasanton, was chosen for his outstanding service and leadership in his community.
Danko belongs to the American Legion Post 237 in Pleasanton, one of the oldest posts in the nation, founded in 1920. He was presented with the award at the Pleasanton Veterans Memorial Hall on Oct. 15 at a dinner held in his honor. Prominent city officials were in attendance, including Mayor Karla Brown and councilmembers Kathy Narum, Jack Balch and Julie Testa.
Retired Army Maj. Doug Miller is a member of Post 237 and several other veteran organizations in the area. As a longtime colleague of Danko, they have worked together for over a decade.
"We're thrilled because Bill really deserves that recognition. Everybody in our post would agree that there's no one more deserving of this award," Miller said. "Bill's been a longtime member of the American Legion."
"He always has a big smile on his face, he's a warm, welcoming person. He's there doing the work and never seeking notoriety," Miller added. "Anyone who spent just a minute or two with Bill would understand why he was not only nominated by our post, but was recognized by the state of California and the American Legion."
Danko joined the U.S. Navy in 1983. While in the service, Danko was trained to be an electrician, which he continues to do professionally now in San Jose. Danko continued to serve in the reserves after leaving the military full-time in 1993. He also became a member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, both veteran support organizations.
"Being a veteran in the Pleasanton area or in the Tri-Valley is great. It's an honor to put on your uniform and people say hello to us. You know you did something for a higher purpose," Danko said.
Over the years, he has committed himself to many projects for the legion, most notably with his part in developing the Naval Sea Cadet program based out of Camp Parks in Dublin. Through various chapters across the nation, cadets ages 13 to 18 participate in courses and training to inform them about Navy service.
"There was an effort to organize the program in the Tri-Valley called the Navy Sea Cadets. He helped organize and get that started, especially in the beginning of that program," Miller recalled.
Aimed toward kids who may be curious or interested in military service, the program offers them a chance to get a first look into what that life and work may be like.
"We're able to do some great things through that program; these kids actually get to work with active service personnel in different areas. We have a photojournalism program, we have a loan program and a diving program. They really get the opportunity to go and experience these things," Danko said. It's an opportunity for the kids to decide if military service is the path they want to take into adulthood.
"I'm very proud and happy I'm able to participate in that program. I enjoyed the military; it has done a lot for me. I look at this as the opportunity to give back," Danko added.
Reflecting on his Legionnaire of the Year Award, Danko showed modest and humble sentiment.
"I'm very happy to be recognized, but I really have a hard time accepting this individually," Danko said. "So many of the reasons we've done great things is because we have such an amazing little community. We try to do what we can to take care of our veterans and just raise awareness."
"I think the guys (of the post) do a really good job of getting parades, different programs and scholarships going," he added. "I'm glad to bring some attention to our post and be the Legionnaire of the Year, but I think it strongly comes from all members of the post, the activities we do and just the ability to be recognized because of all the different things that we've been a part of."