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William Detweiler, tireless advocate for veterans & National World War II Museum, dies at 79

Former National Commander of the American Legion was a longtime advocate for veterans, as well as an attorney and former constable
Credit: Contributed photo
William Detweiler, who advocated for fellow military veterans as National Commander of the American Legion and a leader of the National WWII Museum.

William Detweiler, a New Orleans attorney and former constable who advocated for fellow military veterans as National Commander of the American Legion and was instrumental in the founding and development of the National World War II Museum, has died. He was 79.

In December, though he was suffering the effects of treatment for pancreatic cancer, Detweiler, known as “Bill” or “Billy” to friends, attended a ceremony at the World War II Museum where he was honored by the French government with the French National Order of Merit.

The award recognized his work as a consultant for military and veterans affairs at the museum. He had been associated with the facility since its earliest days, when it was an idea proposed by historians Stephen Ambrose and Gordon “Nick” Mueller, colleagues at the University of New Orleans.

“There ought to be 1,000 bricks with his name inscribed around this museum for all he (Detweiler) has done," Mueller told the crowd at the ceremony. He called Detweiler’s belief in the museum’s mission “unwavering.” "He's been a tireless champion and advocate for this museum and its mission, on local levels, on national levels and international levels."

Over the years, Detweiler served as a member of the museum’s board of trustees and consultant. At the December event, Mueller credited Detweiler with connecting local leaders, military officials and French authorities to stage grand opening ceremonies for the museum in 2000. He was also instrumental in fundraising and programming, launching a World War II Conference at the museum in 2007 and working closely with veterans groups in developing programs and events.

“He takes the detailed time to ensure we are connected with veterans, providing them with the best experience here at the museum,” said museum CEO and president Stephen Watson in December. “When we engage with military and veterans organizations, they leave this museum feeling that they are part of our family. That comes from the heart, and that comes from his deep, deep passion for the services and sacrifices they have made.”

A native of New Orleans, Detweiler’s military service included three years in the Army from 1963 to 1966. He served in the Army Intelligence Corps and was an operations officer with the U.S. Air Defense Command at Fort Bliss, Texas.

He became a member of the American Legion in 1966 and after more than 25 years of service was elected without opposition to the post of National Commander in 1994. In that role he led a group with a membership of 3.1 million at the time. During his tenure, he emphasized the need for better health care for former servicemen and women, pushing for an overhaul of the Veterans Affairs medical system and advocating for better funding for veterans’ health care, including New Orleans' Veterans Medical Center. In 1995, President Bill Clinton invited Detweiler to accompany him to Russia for the 50th anniversary of V-E Day.

His wife of 57 years, Maureen Reed Detweiler, said he was always motivated to take up positions of service, whether as an Eagle Scout, altar boy, soldier or public servant. “Working with the military and veterans was a particular passion of his and brought him a lot of joy,” she said. 

His wife added that politics was another longtime interest. He was a campaign manager for former state Sen. Nat Kiefer and in 1978, in his first bid for public office, Detweiler was elected Constable of New Orleans' First City Court. He served in that post for nearly 20 years, from January 1979 until December 1996. He also served as president of the Louisiana City Marshals and City Constables Association.

In recent years, he was also appointed to the New Orleans Building Corporation, which owns, leases, develops and operates city-owned properties.

He served as a member of the Governor’s Military Advisory Board and was a member of the Louisiana Senate’s Select Committee on Military Affairs, the Mayor’s Military Affairs Committee of Greater New Orleans, the New Orleans Federal Alliance and the Louisiana Veterans Commission.

In 1973, he was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon to the Veterans Administration National Rehabilitation and Education Advisory Committee to the Administrator and was named chairman of the committee in 1975.

Detweiler, who graduated from St. Aloysius High School and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Loyola University, received numerous honors from military and veterans’ groups over the years.

In addition to his work with veterans, he was a strong supporter of New Orleans culture, history and preservation. He and his wife were among the founders of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, which will present its 33rd annual event this weekend.

“He was our first attorney and very active, including introducing the panel discussions,” said festival president and co-founder Peggy Scott Laborde, senior producer at WYES-TV. “He truly loved New Orleans and his involvement with the festival was an expression of that,” she said. Laborde featured interviews with the Detweilers in several of her WYES cultural/historical documentaries, where Detweiler shared memories of everything from shopping on Canal Street to Tulane Stadium, Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

In addition to his wife, Detweiler is survived by four children and six grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.