Pennies, Pizza & American Pride

There’s a big, beautiful, American flag displayed in downtown Custer. It came to be through tragedy, and it flies proudly over our small town, thanks to the dedication of young hearts, passionate citizens and dedicated American Veterans. It symbolizes the blood and tears that have been shed for our country. It represents families and individuals who have made unthinkable sacrifices. And it reminds us to honor our Veterans and support our troops. It stands for a  way of life.

In our humble town, the flag represents all the above and more. Not only a symbol of American pride, but community pride. And for most, a true symbol of gratitude.

Shortly after 9-11, when America was still in shock and feeling broken, patriotism was at all-time high. Our small, South Dakota town mourned the loss of life, and worked to overcome feelings of helplessness. That fall, I sat in a meeting with fellow chamber of commerce employees and board members and brainstormed.  What could we, a township of less than two-thousand people, do to show love and support for our country?

We knew it had to be bigger than a one-time event or celebration. It had to be a valued, year-round presence. Something that would still hold meaning in future years. By the end of that meeting, the Custer Flag Project was born and we were about to prove that big things can happen in small towns.

It was decided that a sizable flagpole would be installed at the end of Fifth Street in the heart of downtown. There, it would be visible to all who enter and travel through Custer.

As the project came to life, our vision got bigger. In addition to the downtown flag, we proposed the installation of light pole banners and dozens of smaller American flags to display along our two main thoroughfares.

But small towns operate on small budgets and towering flagpoles and street banners don’t come cheap. The city nor the chamber had money available to fund the project. It would take the efforts and generosity of the entire community to bring this vision to life.

Some say, it takes a village to raise a child. For us, it would take a village to raise a flag.

We reached out and asked for help, and people gave what they could. Local businesses made generous contributions and encouraged fellow merchants to do the same. Custer residents followed suit, and we began to receive donations in the mail. Some envelopes contained an anonymous five-dollar bill, others, checks written for significant amounts. And without hesitation, our veterans offered their support. Members of the American Legion and the local VFW stepped in and took charge of finding and purchasing an impressive twelve by eighteen foot, American flag. This, along with dozens of smaller flags that would be displayed throughout town.

Within a few months, we had nearly reached our financial goal. We asked the people of Custer to give, and they had happily opened their hearts and checkbooks.

By April 1st, an effort had been made to involve every member of our community. Almost. A small group of individuals had been left out. When we contacted the elementary school principal to see if he was on board with encouraging the kids to participate in our fundraiser by way of a penny drive, we received a resounding “Absolutely. When can we start?” And so, the giving continued.

By that afternoon, the local grocery store had donated dozens of empty, gallon-size water jugs. A single jug was left in each classroom, along with instructions – bring pennies to school and drop them inside. Students were encouraged to ask parents and grandparents for loose change, to dig in the couch cushions and if they found a coin on the sidewalk, to donate it. At the end of six weeks, the class that raised the most money, would be rewarded with a pizza party.

What we expected from the school was a few extra dollars to top off an already successful fundraiser. What we got was a phone call from the school secretary just two weeks later, informing us that the jugs were already full and we needed to pick them up. We retrieved the heavy, penny-logged jugs and replaced them with empties.

Our kids may not have embraced the significance of our project, but there were two things they were serious about. Winning and pizza.

Amidst the hundreds of pennies, were plenty of quarters, dimes and nickels. And the next time we were called to the school, many of the jugs contained several wadded bills. In mid-May, the chamber of commerce staff delivered pizza and celebrated with the fourth-graders. They, along with their schoolmates, had raised nearly $700.

Those students are all grown now, many with families of their own. And I like to think that when they travel through town and see our grand flag, they remember that they were a part of making it happen.

On July 3rd, 2002, a wave of emotions washed over the crowd that had gathered downtown. We kicked off our Fourth of July celebration with the official Custer Flag Raising Ceremony. Through smiles, tears and applause, we watched as Civil Air Patrol cadets assisted our mayor in raising the huge flag. The high school, boys’ quartet sang the National Anthem, and members of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign War and Civil Air Patrol served as color guard.

The generosity and pride of our community shone brightly that day, as the flag was hoisted six stories into the air. Impressive, considering our tallest building is just three stories tall.

Numerous flag ceremonies have been held since, at the base of our grand flag, in what is now known as Veterans Memorial Park. Each year, during our Fourth of July celebration, the flag is lowered the evening of July third and ceremoniously raised the next morning.

I often stop to admire our flag when I’m downtown. Whether it’s billowing in a snowstorm or waving in the summer sun, it reminds me of how proud I am to be an American, and how grateful I am to live in this wonderful, small town.

If you were to ask what color Custer is, some may say it’s green. We are, after all, bordered by parks and National Forest. Others might say gray, the color of the huge, granite outcroppings that form our landscape. But the Custer Flag Project and the fine people who live here are proof to me that our little town is brightly colored in pure red, white and blue.



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