In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, residents of Murrysville, Pa., kept asking city officials, “Where are our flags?”
City officials turned to Bob McKenna, who in 1991 started the regular patriotic displays of hundreds of American flags down Route 22 in the community 20 miles east of Pittsburgh.
“This community is great,” said McKenna, a member of American Legion Post 711 in Murrysville. “We had to get 16 people together and we ended up putting up the flags on that Friday — the Day of Prayer. That was a great day.”
On the morning of Flag Day this year, McKenna once again led a delegation of Legionnaires, a half-dozen Boy Scout Venture crews and other volunteers to set up the three-mile display of American pride. One group started at the western boundary of Murrysville, setting up the 3-foot by 5-foot flags along one side of the highway. A second group started three miles down the road, placing flags on that side.
In roughly 75 minutes, all 340 flags were in place alongside the heavily traveled road.
“This event means pride in America to me,” said Post 711 Commander Frank Persia, who drove one of the vehicles this year but has walked and placed the flags previously. “I feel pride when I do it. The more people who see the display, the more patriotic I think it is. It’s a great cause.”
McKenna started “Flags over Murrysville” as a member of Kiwanis, but four years ago he transitioned it to a project for his American Legion post. He needed volunteers so he reached out to all those who had offered their assistance over the years. His goal was to get 80 volunteers who could take turns to handle the eight to 10 annual flag displays.
Post 711 members jumped at the opportunity. “The Legionnaires were 100 percent behind it; they wanted to make sure that the project didn’t die,” Persia said. “As soon as Bob said that he needed support, they were all in.”
In addition to Legionnaires, community members and others rallied to maintain the popular display.
“It’s the American flag — these men and women all fought for it,” McKenna said. “It’s a perfect fit — a better fit than Kiwanis — for The American Legion. It’s been a good thing. It’s a patriotic thing to do.”
Local businesses, community members and others sponsor flags for $25. The proceeds, about $7,000 each year, fund programs and projects for the Legion post.
Since the project began, it has grown. In 2000, the Route 22 highway expanded and so did the number of spots for flags. McKenna and his team increased the number of flags from 260 to 340.
McKenna’s 28-year project has led to at least 75,000 flags being displayed in his community. The community shows its support each time the flags are positioned. Commuters honk their horns and wave in appreciation.
“After 9/11 when we put up the flags, it was the peak moment of my life,” McKenna said. “That day, it just hit everybody. And everybody — trucks, cars, tractor-trailers, everything — blared on their horns. I never heard anything like it. It was so loud, like a New York City street. It just fired everybody up.”
The tragedy of 9/11 inspired Pam Toto to volunteer to set up the flags, which she has done dozens of times over the past decade.
“I have always admired the efforts to put up the flags to honor our country on significant days,” said Toto, who has lived in Murrysville since 1995. “But my catalyst for volunteering was after the World Trade Center attacks. A childhood friend of mine, Larry Senko, unfortunately passed away in the World Trade Center. I saw this as a way to pay tribute to him, in context of a larger representation of our country and the sacrifices that people make for our freedoms.”
As she walked the route and placed scores of flags, it gave Toto time to reflect.
“Our lives are so busy we tend to forget things,” she said. “This gives me a pause button and an opportunity to think about a friend who I grew up with and — more importantly — to think about the implications of that day, and other days, and how those actions affect all of our lives.”