Holiday flags more than mere show

Retired Navy Cmdr. Dave DeMarsh, a member of the Oak Harbor Lions Club, puts an American flag out for display along Midway Boulevard. Photo Courtesy of Sharon Ryan, Oak Harbor Lions Club

It seems to happen magically on every major national holiday of the year: The streets of Oak Harbor suddenly blossom with red, white and blue, as hundreds of American flags welcome the morning.

Oak Harbor is noted for being a patriotic Navy town, yet it may come as a surprise to learn that the responsibility for these flags rests not with the city, but with private citizens, businesses and Oak Harbor Lions Club volunteers.

“The ‘Old Glory’ program has become

one of our major fundraisers,” said Jim Ryan, who, along with Dave DeMarsh, has headed up the flag project for the Lions for six years. “That, along with Christmas tree and produce stand sales, provides funds for the Lions to carry out a wide range of community outreaches.”

American flags set out along Pioneer Way by the Oak Harbor Lion's Club make for a patriotic downtown. Photo Courtesy of Sharon Ryan, Oak Harbor Lions Club

Ryan said that when businesses, groups or individuals agree to sponsor a flag, the donation they make goes right into local projects. Some of these include covering the costs of hearing and vision exams; glasses and hearing aids; health screenings and scholarships. In fact, the Lions Health Screening Unit for hearing and vision provided screenings recently to elementary school children in the Oak Harbor School District.

According to Charli Van Cleve, co-owner of Van Cleve Optical, and a member of the Lions herself, if people knew about the good things that resulted from the flag project, there would likely be even more flags waving in Oak Harbor on holidays than the present 300-plus.

“In our last fiscal year, we furnished 63 pairs of eyeglasses for people who needed vision care and equipment underwritten by the Lions. With six months still left to go, we’re way past that number (at 84), due to the economy and people being out of work,” said Van Cleve.

The flag project accomplishes good while serving a double purpose, Van Cleve said.

“That flag being there is also a conscious reminder of what that holiday is about, whether the holiday be Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day, whatever,” she said.

Ryan said when the flag program started in Oak Harbor back in 1983, their goal was to set out 55 sponsored flags.

“After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened, many more people stepped forward to support the project,” said Ryan. “By 2011, we had seen the numbers grow to over 320 American flags,” he said.

Setting out the flags on holiday and local event days has turned into quite an undertaking. According to Sharon Ryan, Jim’s wife, just before dawn, four teams load approximately 80 flags each into  pickup trucks outfitted with flashing caution lights. With the route mapped out and divided into sections, the Lions install the flags into prepared holes in concrete sidewalks.

An American flag at dusk on the streets of Oak Harbor. Lions Club members set up and take down the flags on major national holidays. PhotoCourtesy of Sharon Ryan, Oak Harbor Lions Club

Just before dusk, the teams retrace their route, picking up and stowing the flags until the next special occasion.

The entire process, from display to take-down, lasts about 3-and-a-half hours total depending on weather and traffic.

“Wintertime takes a little longer, because sometimes the flagpole bases fill up with water and freeze,” said Ryan.

Great care is taken with the flags during storage to prolong their serviceable life, he said.

“We roll them up carefully, ensuring that they are not wet, which invites mildew,” Ryan said. “The rolled flags are then stowed in metal storage lockers on one of our member’s property.”

Ryan inspects the flags regularly.

“We have some flags of high quality that have lasted 10 to 12 years,” said Ryan. “As they fade, we replace them.”

Once a flag has reached the end of its serviceable life, it is retired in an official ceremony, normally around Flag Day in June, with help from local Boy Scout Troop 59, said Ryan.