WESTERLY — For 90-year-old World War II veteran William Greene, the highlight of this Independence Day will be the knowledge that a flag dedicated in his honor has been erected on the sidewalk outside The Westerly Library.
Greene’s daughter, Lucille Brown, purchased the dedication for the flag, which includes a special number and tag, from the American Flag Committee as a gift for him on Father’s Day.
“When he found out about the flag, he was just beaming from ear to ear,” Brown, a Westerly resident, recalled. “He felt honored, and very, very pleased.”
Today the flag committee will set up some of its 200 flags — provided that the weather cooperates. About 60 of the flags have been dedicated, like Greene’s, in honor or memory of loved ones, through a $50 donation to the flag committee.
“It’s a great way to honor someone like my dad, who already has a great sense of patriotism and attachment to our flag,” Brown said.
While some of these dedicated flags fly year-round as part of the World War II memorial at the intersection of Grove Avenue and Granite Street, Greene’s flag and about 180 others — both dedicated and not — are set up at 7 a.m. on major holidays, including the Fourth of July, by committee members and volunteers.
The tribute to major holidays and parade events originated in town in the late 1960s, but the flags disappeared for almost 50 years until a group of longtime local residents resurrected the patriotic tradition in 2010.
Since starting the American Flag Committee with sponsorship from the Westerly Armory, founder Ken Burton’s collection of flags has grown from an initial pool of 30 to more than 200, including more than 60 that are available for purchase to those wishing to honor a loved one with a specially numbered and tagged flag.
“It’s just patriotism, plain and simple,” said Burton, when asked why he devoted himself to starting the committee and re-instituting the tradition.
“It’s like going to church. If you go to church, you practice what you believe in. This is practicing patriotism.”
Burton described his embarrassment during the Columbus Day Parade in 2009, when veterans marched from a flag-filled street in Pawcatuck to one that was bereft of flags in Westerly. That was his motivation. After working with the town to drill holes into the sidewalks to accommodate the brass flagpoles, Burton and his initial crew of volunteers set up the Westerly flags for the first time at the Memorial Day parade in 2010.
Thanks to their dedication, the flags now fly for town parades and for Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Sept. 11, and Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Burton began with only a handful of volunteers, and though the number of committee members remains small, dozens more volunteers — including members of local veterans groups and Boy Scouts — are scattered throughout town at 7 a.m. on these holidays to set up flags.
“It’s always a little bit by the seat of the pants,” he said. “But it all works out.”
George Wildes, a committee member and former board member at the Armory, noted that with more helping hands, the setup and take-down occurs much more quickly and smoothly.
“It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” Wildes said of the committee. “Ken is a great coordinator and it’s a really genuine effort that’s taken off.”
Burton, a retired machinist at a valve company and a Vietnam War veteran, noted that patriotism is an important idea that sometimes gets overlooked or undervalued.
“It’s not like it used to be,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s just the times, or the economy or politics or what. But I hope young people will see them and appreciate them.”
Wilde, also retired after serving as a commander for the U.S. Coast Guard, said that even the early morning setup attracts attention for the cause.
“We get a lot of people stopping to say thank you or honking the horn at us when we’re setting up,” he said. “It sure creates a lot of behind-the-scenes patriotism that comes to the forefront.”
Word of the committee and its mission has also spread, primarily through word-of-mouth, according to Burton. A donation fund set up through the Armory lets local residents and businesses help the cause, either through monetary donations used to purchase more flags and flagpoles, or by paying $50 to have one of the existing flags dedicated in honor of a loved one.
“The public and the business community have been very generous,” Burton said.
With the help of committee member Ed Liguori, the group has also sent out several mailings and fliers describing their work and requesting additional donations.
“We got a lot of responses from those,” said Liguori, a Korean War veteran and Westerly native.
In addition to their original mission of adorning the streets with flags during holidays and parades, the committee is also working with Wilcox Park and local veterans groups to install spotlights at the World War I memorial, to better illuminate the flags in the dark.
“We want it to be all lit up, like the memorials they have in Washington, D.C.,” Liguori said.
While the project is still in the planning stages, according to Burton, the group will continue its work with the holiday flags, bringing a patriotic spirit to the streets of Westerly for all to enjoy.
“They’re beautiful to see,” Brown said. “My dad is going to love it.”
To make a donation to the American Flag Fund or purchase a dedicated flag, contact the Westerly Armory.
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