By 6 a.m., dozens of cars fill the Merriam community center parking lots. More than 150 volunteers emerge and plunge more than 2,500 American flags into uniform rows in swathes of grass. The 6-foot-tall flags turn the town of a little more than 11,000 into a dizzying maze of patriotic fabric.
Just as they have for every Independence Day for 13 years.
To honor the Fourth of July, The Star interviewed four people who have a deep connection to the American flag: a flag store owner providing symbolic hope for his customers, a motorcyclist educating youth about their nation’s past, the man who brings the American flag to America’s pastime and the grandmother working to bring her community together under those 2,500 6-foot-tall flags.
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A week before the volunteers would “descend like locusts,” as she put it, Susan Hayden, 66, stood outside the Irene B. French Community Center in Merriam and sighed. She’s not a “flag-waving” person, but she has organized the Johnson County suburb’s Flags 4 Freedom since 2013. Through July 8, the flags will fill the area around the community center and Merriam Marketplace and flutter along Merriam and Johnson drives.
“Politics, especially this last year, bother me. I am supportive of the event and the pride that it brings to the people here,” Hayden said. “But the politics of it all, I am just kind of meh.”
Hayden’s father often talked about his time fighting overseas in World War II, crying when recounting deaths of close friends. She said she dreams of a day when there are no wars, but she realizes the chances are slim.
Still, Hayden, who worked as Merriam’s parks and recreation director for 22 years before retiring in 2013, said Flags 4 Freedom can bring the community and families together under a unifying flag. Or flags.
“You’ll see little kids running through the flag fields,” Hayden said, “and it’s a real Kodak moment.”
In the family
All Nation’s Flag Co. is connected to the political world.
During President Richard Nixon’s impeachment, sales fell. President Ronald Reagan drove sales to new heights. And every time the nation mourns a loss, people turn to the flag as a symbol of hope.
Owner Greg Wald sees history in every flag sold. For 93 years, the family-owned store in the River Market has sold, repaired and properly disposed of “thousands and thousands” of American flags, he said. It’s a close-knit family business. Wald learned from his father and plans to pass the shop down to his sons.
Wald grew up in the shop, helping his father and uncles on the weekends, but he was encouraged to work for someone else after graduating from college. He worked at a lumber yard, the convention bureau and finally the then-downtown Hyatt Regency. He was working 70 hours a week and was exhausted. He’d often walk the few blocks to the familiar brown brick of All Nations to have lunch with his father.
“I never wanted to ask, but he saw how worn down I was and said, ‘Are you ready to come work for the family business?’ ” Wald said. He walked back to the Hyatt and turned in his notice.
He started working with his father, Norbert, in 1979. As a 23-year-old, he was young and confident but quickly realized he didn’t know as much as he thought. He was amazed at his father’s deep relationships with every customer, his honesty and unwavering commitment to the shop.
In the winter of 1982, his father was diagnosed with leukemia and died within a year.
“I learned a lot the last year he was alive,” said Wald, pausing for a minute, his eyes looking down to the floor. “To see your father struggling to live, and hurry up to prepare everything for the future, the business, it was hard, but I learned an awful lot.”
After his death, Wald was touched by returning customers’ stories about his father, and he wanted to emulate his father’s character.
He has looked into the eyes of thousands of mothers who lost their sons fighting in the Middle East. He has laughed and shared community concerns with police officers and firefighters. And he has heard countless stories of loss and triumph from veterans from every modern war.
“When you get to see people like that on an everyday basis, it keeps you focused on the things that are important,” Wald said. “Everyone has a story that comes into our store. Everybody matters.”
A full history
Peter Yelorda admits to having a complicated relationship with the flag — it represents both unity and cultural institutions that have oppressed minorities for generations.
“The flag is symbolic of all people that have died for that flag,” said Yelorda, president and founder of Kansas City’s Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club. “It represents the entire country, not just the white history, and sadly a lot of people don’t understand that.”
Yelorda said students haven’t learned the full history of their country and its flag. It’s one of the reasons he founded a local chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers 10 years ago.
More than 200,000 of those black soldiers fought for the American flag in the Civil War, but, he says, schools often don’t teach about them and tend to explain history through a white lens.
Now Yelorda and chapter members visit schools to educate young people and act as role models, especially for black youth whose cultural history is often overlooked in textbooks.
“There’s too much national division,” said Yelorda. “Our educational system, it educates in a way that divides people rather than brings people together.”
The national organization has more than 2,000 members, and his local chapter has 19. Yelorda said if people spent more time together and understood one another’s history there would be far less ignorance.
“There are things going on in the world that are dividing the human race,” Yelorda said. “There has to be more tolerance.”
“It’s about impact”
It’s a time crunch: 45 seconds to carry 300 feet of red, white and blue fabric across the entirety of the Kauffman Stadium outfield.
Standing in the bullpen, more than 120 members of the United States Air Force grip “The Giant Flag.” In a flash, the American flag is stretched and slowly billowing in their hands.
“It’s about impact. There’s something powerful about a flag that size,” said Don Costante, the Kansas City Royals’ senior director of event presentation and production.
Costante and his team organize every color guard and “Star Spangled Banner” performance before Royals games. At a regular season game, a color guard, such as local military, firefighters and Scout troops, always presents the American flag.
But on special occasions, like on opening day and before Game 1 of the World Series, Costante recruits more help, ordering “The Giant Flag” from Utah-based 50 Stars. The flag comes in pieces and is assembled on site. The rental fee for one game is almost $7,000, but Costante thinks it’s worth it.
“I think when you see the color guard, it’s meaningful; the American flag is always meaningful,” Costante said, “but when you have 120 airmen carrying this massive flag, it’s a bigger emotion.”
Jacob Gedetsis: 816-234-4416, @jacobgedetsis