Although the coronavirus pandemic has kept most North Shore activities on hold, two local organizations are determined to make sure those who lost their lives serving the United States are still honored this Memorial Day.
In expressing its appreciation for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, the Gold Coast Business Association has rekindled its tradition of hoisting American flags throughout Glen Head’s downtown. The Glenwood Landing/Glen Head Civic Association will also celebrate veterans through a new Hometown Heroes project, hanging banners identifying and honoring servicemen and women up and down Glen Cove Avenue in Glen Head.
Bringing a tradition back to life
GCBA Corresponding Secretary Ronnie Thyben said the organization began hanging American flags on power poles in Glen Head before Memorial Day and into the summer every year from 2002 to 2017. When Public Serve Enterprise Group Long Island replaced the poles in 2018, however, the association was told it could not hang flags on them.
Thyben, who is also the head of the GCBA’s Flag Committee, said that organization members were dismayed when the tradition was taken away. She said she called the Town of Oyster Bay and the town highway department, but was redirected from person to person and never reached “that guy” who could help her.
Thyben said she finally got in touch with someone from PSEG who sent her an application to get the flags back up earlier this year. She said she went around the community, documenting the identification numbers of 39 poles and reported them back to PSEG. Her request was approved by PSEG and the Town of Oyster Bay, which she said was a great relief.
Thanks to Thyben’s dedication, GCBA members and volunteers hoisted 24 flags across Glen Head last weekend.
“With all this hard work, they’re going to fly again and we’re very happy,” Thyben said.
GCBA President Steve Warshaw said the winding road to get the flags flying again was worth the effort. They make the business district of Glen Head look even better, he said. In past years, the flags have served as a way to attract visitors to the downtown and into local businesses. Since the pandemic is restricting the amount of shopping people can do, however, Warshaw said the flags take on a new meaning — one of community and optimism.
“Whenever people get to see them,” he said, “whether they see them now or they see them later, it’ll put a smile on their face. By putting a smile on their faces, it’ll raise morale everywhere.”
Warshaw said the flags would fly until Flag Day, June 14, when they will be brought to Glenwood Landing American Legion Post 336 for a retirement ceremony in which they will be respectfully burned.
Doing something new
George Pombar, president of the Glenwood Landing/Glen Head Civic Association, said the Hometown Heroes banner project has been in the works since early this year. Civic association members have looked for a way to beautify the center of Glen Head for years, he said, and decided that banners honoring veterans would do so, while also honoring men and women in the armed forces.
Pombar said the American Legion helped the association identify 35 living and dead veterans from the area. Each banner will be decorated with the name and photo of a veteran on one side, and an American flag on the other. Roughly a half-dozen have been put up so far, he said, and more families of veterans reach out to him on social media nearly every day. Putting faces with the names of local veterans on tastefully made banners throughout the hamlet could do much to raise morale during the pandemic, Pombar said.
“I think it’s going to lift the spirits of people,” he said. “We’re all feeling a little depressed that we can’t go out. I want to see a celebration of something nice to happen in the community. We think this is going to be an uplifting event for people to see their family members honored.”
David Whitting, his uncle Scott Whitting and David’s son, Luke, will represent three generations of Army paratroopers honored by the Hometown Heroes project. David, the director of Whitting Funeral Home in Glen Head, said he served in Iraq, Scott served in Vietnam and Luke in Afghanistan. While David said he tends to avoid the spotlight, he added that and his family would be honored to be celebrated by the civic association.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “Especially with Memorial Day coming up, we think of the men and women who didn’t make it back. Those are really the true patriots that made the ultimate sacrifice.”
But there are many others who deserve to be recognized these days because of the pandemic, David Whitting said. “There’s so much going on in the world now, and there are so many people who are doing a lot, whether it’s local, regional, state or national, to help out,” he said. “I think those people, first responders and the medical community, are truly deserving of recognition.”
Maintaining unity during a pandemic
Post 336 member and Vietnam veteran Fred Nielsen said he was touched to see community organizations salute those who died serving their country.
“I love the effort,” he said. “One of the most meaningful aspects of that effort is that it’s not being pushed from the side of the veteran community; it’s coming from the community itself.”
The coronavirus crisis, Nielsen said, is unprecedented in the United States. The death toll now far exceeds the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War — in only 90 days. The North Shore’s connection to its veterans is powerful, he said, and it gives people comfort to know that the nation has gone through difficult times before and has continued to thrive.
“People are reminded that we as a nation have been through some troubled times that would tear us apart,” Nielsen said. “As a nation, they couldn’t tear us apart, and we’re still here.”