Published Date Written by Dan Miller
He was Middletown’s one-man Independence Day tradition. Now he’s hung his last flag.
Something will be missing from Middletown’s sidewalks this Independence Day. Big American flags, lots of them, flying on poles in front of businesses and homes all over the borough.
For nearly 25 years, one man led the charge in carrying out Middletown’s only real July 4 tradition. But Sam Bangert is 70 now. For the past five years he’s been looking for someone to help him. No one has come forward. Bangert can’t do this forever. If this matters to the town, someone else needs to step up.
We’re not just talking Independence Day. Since about 1990, Bangert has made sure the flags go up on nine other holidays throughout the year – Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day, Flag Day, Election Day, Columbus Day, Presidents’ Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day and 9/11, or Patriot Day.
Bangert didn’t start this flag tradition. More like he inherited it.
“As far back as the 1960s, the borough had something to do with the flags,” Bangert said during an interview in the living room of his home on Wilson Street. “The borough passed it down to different groups” until the job ended up with Boy Scout Troop 594. The troop gave it up in 1986 when the Scouts couldn’t get any help.
Bangert, at the time a leader with Boy Scout Troop 101 of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, was asked by the Troop 594 Scoutmaster if he would consider taking over the flag task as a permanent fundraiser to benefit Troop 101.
“I said, ‘All right, we’ll give it a shot,’ “ Bangert said.
He started approaching businesses, asking folks what they thought of the idea and if they would consider sponsoring the cost of buying a flag and a pole to fly in front of their establishment.
“Everybody just flipped out,” Bangert said. He remembers pitching the idea to a woman who worked at a shoe store that used to be on South Union Street. Her husband was a veteran.
“She was ecstatic. I said, ‘I’m convinced.’ “
Bangert wanted to buy the flags from the state. But the cost was too high, and each flag had to have flown over the Capitol. Then, a Troop 101 member who was a Civil War re-enactor told Bangert about Grannies Attic in Gettysburg, with whom Bangert worked out a deal to buy 12 flags at a time at half price.
Middletown Borough Council agreed to give Bangert and the Scouts $750 toward the effort. Council repeated that gesture in each of the next three years.
Bangert and the Scouts started with 24 4-by-6-foot flags, each flying on a 12-foot-high pole, that were placed at various locations along Union Street. Every year, Bangert drew up a contract with each sponsor that promised each flag would be up by 6:30 a.m. on the given holiday, so the Scouts had to get up early.
Each of the flags were then taken down the same night.
Elvis Zeiders of Middletown was one of the Troop 101 Scouts who remembers helping put up the flags on July 4th, and the other holidays.
“It was a lot of fun,” Zeiders recalled. “It was not really a lot of hard work. If you actually had a crew of people, you were good.”
It wasn’t long before people and businesses were clamoring to see the big flags all over town. Bangert remembers the owner of Germak Electric, on the opposite side of the borough, complaining to council that you couldn’t see any of the flags until you got to the square.
“We browbeat the borough into sponsoring eight [more] flags,” Bangert said.
Mike Bowman, a borough landlord, sponsored at least 12 flags to go up in front of his properties, to the point where Bangert pleaded with Bowman’s wife, “You got to tell him to stop. It’s too many.”
In 1991, former Mayor Robert Reid told Bangert he wanted the flags put up for Desert Storm, and he wanted them left up for the duration. The flags were only guaranteed for 90 days of continous flying before they would wear out. After 30 days Bangert took the flags down, saying he couldn’t afford the cost of having to replace them.
“For a week Mayor Reid got bombarded with phone calls,” Bangert said. He recalls one meeting with the mayor at Kuppy’s Diner, when a frustrated Reid said, “’Sam, people are giving me hell.’”
In most cases the flags were only up each holiday for that particular day. If the holiday fell on a Sunday, Bangert and the Scouts put the flags up Saturday and took them down Monday.
If it rained while the flags were up, Bangert had to wait until they dried to take them down. One year it rained so much over one holiday that Bangert couldn’t take the flags down for a week. Sure enough, he got pummeled in the Press And Journal’s Sound Off column over the flags being out in the rain too long.
A Harrisburg native, Bangert moved to Middletown in the 1980s. He spent 20 years working in the former ITT Grinnell Corp. plant in Columbia. Seeking a career change, he tried truck-driving school but it didn’t work out.
He ended up at New Cumberland Army Depot for 21 years, the last several spent in the state-of-the-art Eastern Distribution Center. Running an elevator crane, Bangert would go up as high as 65 feet to pluck everything from a quarter-inch titanium washer to a truck body from the 7,000 bins that made up every row in the enormous warehouse. There were 32 rows.
“I took pride in that, because I felt like I was still serving the military,” said Bangert, who had been in the Naval Reserve 10 years.
Bangert never intended to be involved in the flag program this long. In the beginning, he told council “maybe two years.” But the program kept growing, and with it Bangert’s responsibilities.
The flag program reached its peak around 1997, when Bangert and the Scouts were putting up and taking down 114 flags from Union, Ann and Main streets clear to the 230 Diner in Londonderry Twp. The nearly $1,500 coming in from sponsors each year covered expenses, with enough left over to send the Scouts on a trip to Canada.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks evoked another outbreak of patriotic fervor. The flags went up again in Middletown, this time each one tempered with somber black ribbon to remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost.
“They made the whole town look great,” Bowman said. But the flags were showing wear and would soon need to be replaced. Bowman approached then-Borough Manager Jeff Stonehill, who freed up $1,500 from the town beautification fund for Bangert and the Scouts. “That fit perfectly, because it beautified Middletown,” Bowman said.
But 9/11 fueled such demand for flags that Bangert lost his half-price deal with Grannie’s Attic. And a bigger problem was looming: Bangert was starting to lose his flag foot soldiers. Troop 101 eventually folded – “disappeared,” as Bangert put it – for reasons he can’t really explain.
“The last five years I was doing it myself,” Bangert said of the flag detail. “I told council as long as I could walk and my health was good, the flags would be out.”
But putting up and taking down the flags himself was becoming too much of a job. The strain of twisting the flags in and out of the holes in the sidewalk that Bangert had drilled was taking a toll on his wrists. His legs felt “dead beat” at the end of each holiday.
He couldn’t get away on holidays like everyone else, because he always had to be back to take the flags down. He needed help, but Bangert said it wasn’t his nature to “pester” people. He went back to Troop 594 to convince the Scouts to take over the mission, but “we could never get together” on it, he said.
After turning 70 this May, Bangert finally convinced himself that the time had come. After Armed Forces Day, he would be finished.
He still keeps the flags and poles in a trailer at his house, hoping that some person or group will come forward to carry on the tradition. He doesn’t expect the borough to take it over, given the town’s financial challenges.
He’s trying to get the word out to sponsors that they can buy their own flag and pole for $10, and put it up and take it down at their address as they see fit. The flags no longer suitable for flying he’ll turn over to the Marine Corps League for proper disposal.
Bowman thinks it might be possible to find someone to fill Bangert’s shoes, but it won’t be easy.
“There are ways to do it. You have to be persistent,” Bowman said.