Frayed Flag? Wave These Folks Down


When a strong gust of wind sent a 15-foot flagpole crashing down onto the patio of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. at Navy Pier, general manager Meghan Burke knew just whom to call.

Within hours, two men armed with pliers, wrenches, cable and pulleys had assessed the damage and ordered a stronger, sturdier model they would later install that would withstand many more years of whipping winds on Chicago's lakefront.

"I don't physically ever see them," Burke said of the crew. "It's like magic, it just happens."

There may be thousands of American flags flying high in front of schools, churches, stadiums and other businesses across the Chicago area -- especially over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. And sometimes things can go drastically wrong in this windy city -- ropes fray and break, pulleys wear out, flags flip over or get tangled in trees, poles topple.

That's when it's time to call the experts, companies such as W.G.N. Flag & Decorating Co. on the South Side, dedicated to rescuing flags and flagpoles in the most dire of emergencies.

Crews for the 97-year-old, fourth-generation family-owned business work around the clock, climbing poles and maneuvering bucket trucks and cranes around City Hall, Chicago Public Schools buildings, the United Center and plenty of other locations where Old Glory should be flying high.

And this time of year -- from Memorial Day to Sept. 11 -- is the busiest.

"It's not easy," said Carl Porter Jr., who grew up selling hand-held American flags on Fourth of July for his grandfather in the company he later inherited and handed down to his own son.

"But there's no other way of doing it."

Founded in 1916 by William George Newbould, W.G.N. filled a niche, repairing American flags and selling pennants for sports games and car lots. The company has no official connection to the WGN television and radio stations, which are owned by Tribune Co., except for the occasional confusion the name causes and the fact that it maintains the flag outside the TV station on Bradley Place in Chicago.

Newbould and his wife, the company's first seamstress, lived in an apartment above their business. With no competition for years, W.G.N. began long-standing relationships with Notre Dame University, where it sold flags and other souvenirs at football games. Marshall Field & Co. hired the firm to hang bunting at its downtown store for soldiers after World War I.

And at a time when written contracts weren't necessary, W.G.N. started hanging flags outside every Chicago public school and in each classroom. It placed flags outside Chicago's City Hall and at municipal buildings in neighboring communities. It helped decorate the city for Queen Elizabeth's visit in 1959, said Pamela Porter, Carl's wife.

W.G.N. has always ordered the American flags it sells from giant companies that mass-produce them using embroidering machines.

But through the years, the company has also had to evolve with changing times: It stopped selling game souvenirs when bookstores took over producing such merchandise for Notre Dame and other colleges. When Porter's son, Carl Porter III, took over the business in 2004, he helped create its first website and bring in digital technology equipment.

Today, in addition to CPS and other long-standing city clients, the company fills orders for custom flags and signs from customers around the country. It places mourning drapes at the funerals of Chicago police officers and firefighters, and it designs and hangs all the championship flags at the United Center and U.S. Cellular Field, Porter Jr. said.

But a major part of the company's business still comes from tending to American flags flying over the Chicago area, which can cost a customer anywhere from $8 to repair, wash and dry a torn flag to $1,000 for a major problem with a flag and pole.

"Some of these buildings downtown you've got a flag flying, and it's a couple hundred miles an hour with wind," Porter Jr. said. "Just think if you wore that outfit 24-7, through wind? Rain? (The flags) wear out."

From 8:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, three longtime employees answer phones at the company's headquarters, still on the same block on Chicago's South Side.

On half-sheets of carbon copy paper with the company's logo, general manager Eileen Sheldrake jots down details of emergencies, then lines them up in rows on a desk. She tells the repair crew where to head each day. On Monday, a Bensenville resident needed a flagpole erected in his front yard. On Tuesday, 60 American flags needed to be hung on 95th Street in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood in time for the Fourth of July.

"I grew up and I watched the man walk on the moon and I've always been patriotic," said Sheldrake, who said she had a flagpole installed outside her home weeks after starting at W.G.N. in 1986.

It wasn't long before neighbors put up their own poles -- a contagiousness Sheldrake said she loves witnessing regularly.

"I enjoy this job a lot," she said.

While the crew manages to handle most jobs during business hours, flagpole rescues in downtown Chicago that require the large crane or bucket truck must happen overnight to avoid traffic and crowds.

Whenever possible, Porter Jr. said he likes to involve members of the community in a flag installation at a public place, not because his crews need the help, but because he thinks the public could use a little patriotic encouragement.

"It's spirit," he said. "If you get the people involved in it, it makes them care."

And all the while, W.G.N. workers keep flag etiquette in mind, following guidelines set by the National Flag Foundation. For example, a flag must be rectangular in shape, and the "field" -- the blue section with white stars -- cannot be wider than the red and white stripes to its right. A flag must always be positioned to the right of a speaker. Flags should never touch the ground, and in Chicago when an aging, tattered flag needs to be destroyed, it can only be burned by those with a city license to do so, Porter Jr. said.

"It's nice because once it's in their hands, you don't have to think twice," said Erin Ross, executive director of the 95th Street Business Association, which has relied on the company to hang its flags for 15 years.

After hustling to get ready for the Fourth of July weekend, W.G.N. closes for the holiday to allow staff to enjoy patriotic celebrations and fireworks displays with their families.

The company will open again early Friday. Workers expect to find plenty of voice mails waiting for them.

"We're a very small breed," Porter Jr. said.

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