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American flags along Market Street in 1999. Flag Day often lies between observance and obscurity.
TOM GRALISH / Inquirer Staff Photographer
American flags along Market Street in 1999. Flag Day often lies between observance and obscurity.
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Flag Day loses importance but lives on in Phila.

Susan Magee is the kind of person who cries when she hears The Star-Spangled Banner.

So you figure she's ready for Flag Day.

"It's June 14, right?" the Conshohocken educator asks, uncertainty in her voice.

She's sort of lost track, explaining that her husband, a Navy veteran, always used to fly the flag on Flag Day, but that the custom faded as their son got older and their lives busier.

That seems to be Flag Day's modern fate - embraced by some, guiltily overlooked by others, in many places devolved into a neglected, orphan holiday.

"It's not like it used to be," said Bob Shalala, a Navy veteran long active in the leadership of the American Legion in Philadelphia.

In some neighborhoods you can drive for blocks and not see a flag on Flag Day.

Why? For one, Flag Day lands at an odd time in the calendar - caught between the kickoff of Memorial Day and the cook-off of July Fourth. Forgotten by too-busy parents jostled by the closing of schools and the opening of pools.

Flag Day isn't prestigious enough to earn anybody a day off from work; it doesn't rank among the 10 federal holidays. In fact, it's a state holiday in just one place - Pennsylvania, which, like others, claims to be the founder of Flag Day.

It's also true that today, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, people are more attuned to patriotism in everyday life and have more ways to express it - magnetic yellow ribbons on their cars and decals that proclaim I support the troops in their windows.

"Our residential flag business is booming," said Jan Hartman, who runs Flag Lady Gifts in Wayne. All-time flag sales peaked after the Sept. 11 attacks, she added.

There is no shortage of flag waving in Troy, N.Y. The city, which asserts that it coined "Uncle Sam" as a nickname for the U.S. government, hosts a thriving Flag Day parade that typically draws 50,000 spectators.

The event started in 1967 as a response to a group of Vietnam War protesters who burned an American flag. Today, 5,000 marchers, floats and bands traverse a two-mile route.

"People should have that flag out," said Ed Manny, president of the Flag Day Committee in Troy. "You can't be a part-time patriot."

In Waubeka, Wis., which also claims to be Flag Day's founding city, an annual parade draws dozens of marching bands and military units.

"When you talk the flag around here, it's big stuff," said John Janik, president of the National Flag Day Foundation there. "You don't see anybody with their hand not over their heart. So many flags go by, your hand gets tired."

This weekend at the Betsy Ross House, long the site of Philadelphia's observance, officials plan to turn what has traditionally been a staid event into a celebration, complete with a street fair. They'll try to achieve a Guinness record by constructing a giant flag out of 8,000 Post-It Notes.

Flag Day has evolved in fits and starts over the years.

The original Flag Day was June 14, 1777, when the Second Continental Congress approved a resolution to adopt a U.S. flag. After that, nobody paid much attention. For about a hundred years.

In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, a man named George Morris persuaded his city of Hartford, Conn., to undertake a patriotic celebration on behalf of the Union. But the concept didn't catch on, there or elsewhere.

Two decades later, in 1885, a 19-year-old Waubeka schoolteacher named Bernard Cigrand plunked a small flag into an inkwell on his desk and assigned his students to write essays on patriotism. Later he traveled the country to promote respect for the flag, becoming president of the American Flag Day Association.

In 1888, William Kerr, son of a Civil War veteran, founded the American Flag Day Association of Western Pennsylvania, pressing presidents and legislators to make Flag Day official. In his home town of Rennersdale, near Pittsburgh, a historical marker honors Kerr as the "Father of Flag Day."

There were other fathers, too. And at least one mother.

In 1889, New York City principal George Bolch had his school hold patriotic ceremonies to observe the day. State officials later expanded the program. In 1893, Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, head of the Colonial Dames of Pennsylvania, worked to have public buildings in Philadelphia display flags - an effort that led one federal office to credit Philadelphia as Flag Day's original home.

Still, Flag Day struggled for official respect. It wasn't until 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson issued a wishy-washy proclamation to "suggest and request. . . if possible" that people observe Flag Day. Thirty-three years later, in 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed an act naming Flag Day as the 14th.

Magee, the Conshohocken educator, recently helped her son research the flag for a school project, which made her think about the flag's importance - and how it is often overlooked.

"In our country, we're just so psyched to have off work. We're not focused on these people who continue to do these extraordinary things, out of patriotism. We're so overworked and stressed out, all we want is the holiday," she said. "But the flag is much more complex. It's one of the few palpable symbols we really have. That, and the Bible. People swear on the Bible, and they won't mess up a flag."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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Comments
Posted by joeblow 02:31 PM, 06/14/2008
We should have a flag lapel pin day, during which we worship the flag lapel pin and those who wear it! Oh wait, that's everyday.
Posted by joeblow 02:31 PM, 06/14/2008
We should have a flag lapel pin day, during which we worship the flag lapel pin and those who wear it! Oh wait, that's everyday.
Posted by John from Wayne, PA 08:51 AM, 06/16/2008
Dear joeblow, Your sarcastic post has all the subtelness and thoughtfullness of a drive by shooting. You mistakenly lump together all patriotic Americans - and putting all people who display a flag lapel pin in teh same basket is just lazy, ignorant, or both. Samuel Johnson, a British author, was quoted as saying "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". He was quoted by author James Boswell. Boswell himself clarified the remark by writing: "But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest." And there is evidence that he was speaking specifically about another politician of his day - Edmund Burke. I'm guessing that your ridicule of all people who honor the flag comes from ignorance. I doubt you ever served in the armed forces. It's hard for me to imagine anyone who has put their life on the line to defend our country - and by extension and symbollically our flag - would ever make such a wisecrack. Perhaps if you were to volunteer for even one hour at a VA hospital and actually have a conversation with one of our wounded vets you would begin to have a clue about the subject.
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