Since Betsy Ross laid down her needle and thread, the American flag has changed 26 times.
One of those times, in 1822, a 24th star got added representing the entry of Missouri to the Union. By the time of St. Joseph’s incorporation in 1843, the nation’s banner had 26 stars.
The look of the flag changed with the years. The symbolism has not.
Dick Anderson has an armload of flags, their poles hugged together in a tight cluster. He is returning them to a closet provided by the St. Joseph Fire Department at the North Belt Highway station.
“I try to keep the flags in good shape and put up the brackets and take them down when necessary,” he said. “So it’s very important to me.”
Anderson moved to St. Joseph 26 years ago, a transplant from Kansas. He had not been in the city long before he became involved in Sertoma, the Missouri-born club whose very name speaks to its mission: service to mankind.
One service to which Anderson warmed was the placement of American flags at businesses during assorted holidays. It served as a fundraising vessel for the organization, but it also dressed up the city.
A quarter-century of work later, he still believes in the program.
“I think it’s very important that they show the patriotism, the flag flying,” he said. “For us, it’s a service to have the flags flying. It’s a service to the nation.”
On 10 days a year, most national holidays but also Missouri Western State University’s homecoming, the Sertomans fan out to place the flags at participating businesses, trying to have them out by sunrise and down by sunset.
(For a $40 contract, the club supplies, the bracket, the pole and the flag.)
Seven flag routes exist, with club members volunteering to make the circuits. Firehouses have been gracious in supplying storage, Anderson said, and their locations and availability make them ideal.
On some occasions, the Sertomans have shown up with the firefighters away on a call, and they wait to retrieve the flags.
The flags go out, weather permitting.
“This year, the weather hasn’t been very permitting,” Anderson said.
St. Joseph has had a complicated history with the American flag. In 1861, a former mayor, Meriwether Jeff Thompson, led a Southern-sympathizing mob in bringing down and destroying the flag at the city’s post office.
The incident led to city occupation by Union troops and came to represent the divide of allegiance among St. Joseph’s citizens during the Civil War. Some historians say the turmoil cost the community its chance of being the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad.
For his part, Thompson hightailed for a command in the Confederate cause.
Flags make for no such local contention these days, though Anderson says fewer contracts exist today for the Sertoma program than in the past.
“What’s hurting to me is you go by shopping areas, and you won’t see a flag flying,” he said. “I think that’s terrible.”
Money from this program and other fundraisers goes to the club’s signature commitment to helping those with hearing impairments. Sertoma has helped in auditory looping projects around the city. A camp for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, ages 7 to 14, will again be held this month at Camp Marvin Hillyard.
As Independence Day arrives and flags go into their places, Anderson reflects on the worth on the program that he has long embraced.
“It’s very gratifying to see the flags flying,” he said.