s
s
Sections
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

By 1 or 2 p.m. Monday, Terry Thurman and Steve Bosshard may start to wilt. Memorial Day is long and exhausting for this pair, both military vets.

But if the historic pattern holds, a fair number of people still will be paying their respects at the Santa Rosa Memorial Park cemetery when a late-spring, early-afternoon breeze kicks up and sets 1,000 large, pole-strung American flags to rippling and snapping.

About then, the weary organizers of the annual Avenue of the Flags tribute tend to catch a second wind.

Taking in the spectacle of the unfurled, 9.6-foot by 5-foot flags, many of which once draped caskets of GIs and veterans, the volunteers start thinking that all the work involved in Sonoma County's largest Memorial Day commemoration is worth the effort.

"It's just beautiful to witness," said co-organizer Thurman, who's 62 and an Air Force veteran.

She and Bosshard, a 68-year-old Marine Corps vet and retired police officer, do worry about how much longer the 42-year-old tradition will survive without a significant infusion of younger blood.

"This is my 18th year," said Thurman, who worked an entire career with the U.S. Postal Service. "Everybody's getting older."

Sustaining the Avenue of the Flags has been a concern since the star-spangled Memorial Day salute was born in 1972 with the loan of the first veteran's burial flag. Helen Finley Comstock of Santa Rosa offered up the flag she was given five years earlier upon the death of her husband, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge and World War I infantry officer Hilliard Comstock.

The late Mrs. Comstock entrusted the flag to Avenue of the Flags founders Bill Grafe and the late Al Andrews. That was 42 years ago, when Vietnam veteran and American Legion officer Grafe was a partner in Eggen & Lance Mortuary, and Andrews managed Santa Rosa Memorial Park, the city's largest cemetery and home to a large veterans' lawn.

Memorial Day observances had been conducted in Santa Rosa, fairly small and static gatherings at the Veterans Memorial Building, with speeches and a touch of music.

Andrews thought locals who had died in service to their country and vets who had passed on deserved more. He told Grafe, who served as an officer with a combat mortuary in Vietnam, about something the American Legion was doing in Salinas.

It was an Avenue of the Flags, a public, Memorial Day display of the flags given to local families of members of the Armed Services who had lost their lives, and of veterans who had died since their honorable discharge from the military.

Grafe remembers phoning fellow American Legion members in Salinas and driving there with five other members of Santa Rosa's Theodore Roosevelt Post 21 of the American Legion to speak with their Monterey County counterparts.

They returned home and scheduled Santa Rosa's first Avenue of the Flags for May 29, 1972. Also that May, the Paris Peace Talks broke down between the warring U.S. and Vietnam, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover died at age 77 and "The Godfather" rubbed out all its competitors at the box office.

The Santa Rosa commemoration would need flags.

"We put the word out around town that we were doing this," said Grafe. American Legion members asked if survivors of GIs and veterans would loan or donate the burial flags they had received from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

More info

Sonoma County Deaf Community Facebook page: facebook.com/SOCODC

The widow of Judge Comstock was the first of many to comply.

"That first year we had more than 100 flags," Grafe said. Quite a few had been issued in honor of World War II and Korean War troops and veterans, and wore just 48 stars.

Keenly aware of the responsibility that came with accepting the flags, Grafe and his wife, Donnette, used permanent markers to write on each flag's webbing, where the grommets are, the GI or vet's full name and dates of service. Each flag also is assigned a number.

The Grafes and their helpers created a ledger that lists the number of each flag and the servicemember or veteran it honors.

The records are important as an inventory list and also as a reference source that is indispensable if a family member wishes to reclaim a flag, or if a visitor to the Avenue of the Flags asks where a relative or loved one's flag is located.

Bill Grafe and the other vets in 1972 created 12-foot flag poles. With the help of Santa Rosa Memorial Park employees, they sank galvanized metal sleeves in the ground along the cemetery streets, about 10 feet apart, as receptacles for the poles.

It occurred to the involved American Legion members that they also would like to have the 50 state flags present. So they wrote to each capital and requested one.

Officials of about half the states mailed in a flag. Over time, Post 21 purchased the other half.

Early Memorial Day, Grafe and Andrews and the other volunteers arose, removed the carefully folded and numerically ordered flags from a Santa Rosa Memorial Park storage room and placed each in its assigned lawn sleeve.

The Press Democrat reported the following day that for Sonoma County's inaugural Avenue of the Flags, a display of 165 burial flags and 26 state flags welcomed guests of the open-air observance.

Congressman Don Clausen was the ceremony's keynote speaker, thanking those to whom everyone present was "eternally in your debt for keeping America free." In an allusion to the continuing, polarizing war in Vietnam, Clausen said, "Above all, we must never again commit ourselves to any war unless the nation and the American people are fully united behind the men who are committed to security requirement."

Grafe directed the Avenue of the Flags for 25 years before he stepped back from the responsibility. Now 73 and a senior funeral director at Daniels Chapel of the Roses, Grafe said, "I decided it needed some fresh thinking."

Over the decades, the complexity and physical demands of the annual tribute have grown along with the number of loaned flags, currently more than 1,300. Only 1,000 can be posted on Memorial Day.

For a time, the flags put on display were rotated each year and those in excess of 1,000 were stacked on a table throughout the commemoration. If a loved one inquired about one of those flags, volunteers found it in the stacks and raised it briefly on a dedicated pole.

Current, long-time co-organizer Thurman said that practice became impractical, so now the same 1,000 flags are exhibited each year. As flags are claimed by loved ones, which happens a few times a year, or are retired upon coming into disrepair, flags are moved from the surplus stacks to the active stacks.

Late last week, Thurman, Marine veteran Bosshard and other vets spent hours locating and uncapping the 1,000 lawn sleeves — the original metal ones have been replaced with PVC — and making sure they were clear of soil and ready to receive the poles.

They and their helpers will wear themselves out Monday, posting the flags, overseeing the program and then removing and folding the flags and assuring they are in order as they are returned to storage shelves.

"If you have to do everything, it tires you out," Thurman said. "It would be wonderful if some younger vets would step up.

"Nobody wants to see this program end."