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Sean Kirst: Amid senseless bloodshed on Flag Day, educators cling to hope

In his pocket, Greg Johnson's cellphone wouldn't stop pinging. The acting principal of the Dr. George Blackman School of Excellence, or School 54, guessed he was receiving repeated news alerts Wednesday morning, and that some big national story must be breaking.

Even so, he was in no position to check his phone. He stood before hundreds of joyous Buffalo schoolchildren, most wearing T-shirts of red, white and blue at Forest Lawn Cemetery. He explained to them why Flag Day means so much to him. He spoke of Sarah Hinson, a Buffalo teacher and principal buried at Forest Lawn, a pioneering educator whose sheer will and persistence brought her national honor as one of the founders of Flag Day.

[Gallery: Flag Day ceremony at Forest Lawn Cemetery]

Johnson's point was simple. From his perspective, Hinson didn't simply celebrate the flag. Until her death in 1926, she lived out its larger meaning. The flag, he said, is a symbol of principles that reinforce how much a single American, from any background, can accomplish through reason, courage and persistence.

"She was just one person with one idea," Johnson said, "and she created so much change behind what she believed."

Later, as the children walked back to the school, Johnson finally had a chance to check his phone. He realized he had received a battery of news reports from Alexandria, Va., where a gunman opened fire on a group of men practicing for a congressional baseball game. Several victims were wounded – including Steve Scalise, majority whip of the House of Representatives – before police shot the assailant to death.

For the educators and veterans who took part in the Flag Day gathering in Buffalo, the bloodshed represented the harsh, despairing opposite of every lesson about restraint and understanding they wanted to convey to the children.

"We were out there enjoying the day," Johnson said. "We're trying to show the kids there are ways in this country of expressing yourself peacefully, without violent conflict."

Children arrive Wednesday for the Flag Day celebration at Forest Lawn Cemetery. (John Hickey/the Buffalo News)

His own background helps explain his passion for the event. The Flag Day celebration – held near a slope at the cemetery where a flag waves above Hinson's grave – was shaped into a tradition by H. Geneive Jones-Johnson, former principal at School 54. Two years ago, the now-retired Jones-Johnson asked Greg Johnson if he'd be willing to organize and coordinate the event.

Johnson, now acting principal, embraced the opportunity. The day, for him, already carried life-changing meaning. It was the birthday of his grandfather, the late Ronald Brogan Sr., whose world view had a powerful effect on their family. A South Buffalo native, Brogan left school at 12 when his own father died. He found a job to help feed his mother and siblings.

Brogan fought in the Korean War, then returned to raise a family and to build up his Lockport construction business, from scratch.

"He tolerated no excuses," Johnson said. "He pushed every one of us."

Brogan's example was based on the idea that success demands tenacity, relentless honesty and responsibility. His message to his children and grandchildren, who all called him "Papa," was that hard work would overcome almost any difficulty.

Until he died, the extended family gathered on Flag Day to celebrate his birthday and to replace the American flag he always flew in his yard. It was a tradition that invariably ended with a sense of warmth and kinship.

With his grandfather in his mind – and with thoughts of broadening the already extraordinary Flag Day heritage in Buffalo – Johnson thought he might help build a similar tradition within the schools.

It was a chance to instill "the values of America," said Paulette Woods, a Buffalo School Board member and commander elder of the Jesse Clipper American Legion Post.

Buffalo police closed down a piece of Main Street Wednesday while children from Schools 54, 17 and 31 – the school where Hinson taught and then became a principal – all walked to Forest Lawn. At the ceremony, the cemetery set out several "burn boxes," allowing city firefighters John Velez, Shaun McCleary and Jeff Crockett, joined by lieutenants Michael Connelly and Pat McCarthy, to "retire" old flags by setting them carefully in the flames.

For weeks, donors from the community delivered those flags to the schools. Many flags were worn and tattered. Others were made of strong cloth, with beautifully braided stars. Each clearly had been precious to someone – as made evident by such spectators as Joyce DiChristina and William and Margaret Siperek. All three brought old family flags to the ceremony.

They also brought their grandchildren, as a means of understanding just how much the flags meant. Those families watched as city schoolchildren, who'd helped to carefully fold hundreds of flags, stood in line for a long time Wednesday to hand them, one by one, to the firefighters.

"I know all these flags are getting old," said 10-year-old Ti'aca Johnson, "and it felt good to give them a break."

If any adults at the event knew of the attack in Virginia, it went unsaid. A squad from the Francis J. Donovan American Legion Post in Cheektowaga fired rifles, as a salute. Veronica Johnson, Samuel Murphy and Jerry Bowman, veterans representing the Johnetta R. Cole Amvets Post, also took part in an annual ritual at the heart of the ceremony:

They brought a new flag to replace the old one, over Hinson's grave.

As retired flags burn in the background, Buffalo city firefighters accept more from children Wednesday at Forest Lawn Cemetery. (John Hickey/The Buffalo News)

The students celebrated by singing classic American anthems, including Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." Shanoda Davis, a third-grade teacher who coordinated Flag Day preparations at School 17, wanted to see more passion. When her children started off by singing softly, she moved down a row of chairs, leaned toward them and raised her arms.

The boys and girls looked up at her, and their voices rose as one.

"Much better!" she exclaimed, stepping back to watch.

The American flag, she said, made her think of her mother, Deborah Mitchell, who came to Buffalo from Tennessee as a small child.

Davis spoke of her mother as "my rock," a model of courage and support, even after Mitchell began suffering from multiple sclerosis. "She taught me we can be anything we want to be," said Davis, who tries to pass on that same message to her pupils.

To her, the flag is a statement for those boys and girls of the possibility that "whatever's in their head, whatever it is they want to become, they can be. Where they are isn't where they have to stay."

The entire event, to her, was an inspiration. It was only afterward, after she and her fellow teachers led their children back to school, that Davis learned of the Flag Day shooting near Washington. No motive had been officially made public as of Wednesday evening, but Davis already had framed her reaction to whatever insanity brought a shooter to a baseball field.

"This is heartbreaking, it really is," she said. "This is a democracy, and you have the right to free speech, but you never have the right to hurt someone else. Your beliefs are your beliefs, but they don't give you the right to cause harm. We try and teach the kids to respect each other, that they were put on this planet to help each other."

To her, that is at the absolute core of Flag Day.

Greg Johnson saw his grandfather in the spirit of the celebration, while Davis immediately thought of her mother. For each of them, the flag takes on the dimensions of the Americans who influenced them most, the ones who taught them about love, courage and decency.

It is the message Johnson, Davis and other city educators try to bring to their pupils every day, children they know often come from lives of struggle. What they want them to find, the promise of Flag Day, is a sense of peace and hope.

Some days, if you believe those things, you hate to check your phone.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com and read more of his work here.

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