Known to most simply as `The Flag Guy,' Brother Edward Courtney shares tales of his life, love, his faith in people and his 11 years spent under the flags on SR 933
photos and text by Amanda Greco
Most of us have seen him — the infamous man at the edge of the road. We have all pondered his purpose at this point in his life. What is it, exactly, that possesses an elderly man to sit on the side of a highway, surrounded by flags, waving to passersby?
If you're anything like I am, your initial reaction to this sight was extreme amusement, followed by intense curiosity. And perhaps there was a sneaking suspicion of some sort of lunacy lurking beneath those flags.
Upon realizing that this pillar of the South Bend community was a permanent fixture — weather permitting — on the east side of State Route 933, I set out to uncover the mystery of the man known affectionately by students flanking both sides of his post as "The Flag Guy."
Who is this valiant man who, day after day, year after year, sits watching the world go by? Just what compels him to do so? This patron saint of north- and southbound traffic is none other than Brother Edward Courtney — a retired Holy Cross Brother, a World War II veteran, ex-salesman and sage who readily espouses the knowledge his 82 years of living have afforded him.
One pursuit, however, extracts perhaps the most time and energy from Edward's life — his vigil held on the side of the road. For 11 years, he has staked his flags and his folding chair in that same spot and waved at the traffic passing by. He does this in honor of the American flag, "Old Glory," the same flag for which he and others fought in WWII. This tradition began in 1989 in response to a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme court regarding the burning of the American flag.
In 1984, a man by the name of Greg Johnson burned the flag at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas. The burning was in protest of the United States' lack of support for the indigent and poor of the world. Johnson was arrested and charged, and the Texas Court of appeals opened the case of Texas vs. Johnson — a case so controversial it made its way to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, it was ruled that the desecration of the American flag was in keeping with the free speech clause of the first amendment and was beyond prosecution.
What the court called a "symbolic action" on Johnson's part, along with the decision of the court, did not sit well with Edward, a man who had not only served his own country in war, but in ministerial efforts towards helping other countries.
Following the ruling, Edward bought his first flag to show his displeasure and to bring the people together. In the same way that Johnson originally used the American flag as a "symbolic action," Edward has used the flag as his own symbol, a testament to the power and influence one person may possess.
The history and progression of Edward's life and fair-weather, peaceful protest fill a glass case within the sitting room of Columba Hall. Among the tattered leaves and browning envelopes lie pictures of a young Edward Courtney at bat, standing with his brother, his senior yearbook picture, too. Here you can find letters, awards, discharge papers, Army bars, honorary citizenships — even a note handwritten on gold-stamped Air Force One letterhead from President George Bush.
"In 11 years, the enthusiasm hasn't changed," he says. There are bound volumes of letter he has received voicing people's support, and many more are delivered each year.
Overwhelmingly, the positive responses to Edward's subtle statement woven in the cloth of his flags have been emphatic. "Some people bring me food and something to drink," he says. "Lots of people stop just to talk to me. They can all solve their own problems; they just need to find someone to listen."
"And one time, when I fell asleep in my chair, someone called security," he adds. "I woke up to ND security shaking me and asking me if I was alive. Then, next thing I knew, there were ambulances and sheriff's cars around me. All I did was fall asleep!"
The negative responses Edward has received tend to come in the form of obscenities shouted by young men hanging out of passing vehicles.
"I just wave and give them the thumbs up just the same," Edward explains. "If there's one thing I learned as an umpire, it's that you never respond in kind. Plenty of people will be rude to you. You just have to turn it around on them."
No matter what the instance, Edward keeps an optimistic outlook. Once, when he forgot to bring his flags and chair home at night, he returned in the morning to find them gone.
"I don't really mind," he says, "as long as whoever took them got good use out of them."
Though some may not agree with his beliefs, none can argue that Edward brings smiles to the faces of South Bend travelers each day he is there with his flags. This alone is enough for him. "You don't have to be a big deal; you don't have to have a Ph.D. or an LL.B. or be the president to be able to influence people," he says. "I have no degree; I'm just a high school graduate, that's all. But even I know what one person can do. We influence other people every day — whenever we smile or take the time to say hello. People don't realize that, you know."
The sight of Edward and his flags has come to represent more than just his beliefs to many people. For Edward, it is no longer a sole crusade for Old Glory that he leads; it is a ministry for the people who stop to speak with him, request his prayers and elicit his counsel, and serves to back his strongest belief — not that we shouldn't allow the desecration of the flag, but that we should never underestimate the power of one individual.
"People see the flag and it's going to influence them. When they see the lone figure sitting there, it's going to influence people for the good," he says.
Edward never expected to be the public figure he is today. But he tries to use his appearances on television and covers in various media to continue to influence people positively.
As Edward passes the hours in his well broken-in chair, he fights fatigue with smiles, and boredom with the comfort of honks and waves returned. He lives his personal motto to the fullest every day. Edward feels "it is better to wear out than rust out."
The energetic manner in which he communicates with those around him stands testament to his immense caring for others and his daily activities prove that he is far from the slightest tinge of rust.
Though, you could not find fault with Edward if he were beginning to show the first signs of wear after all he has accomplished.
Back in 1941, Edward was a young man with a high school degree and a job as umpire for a semi-professional baseball team in Portland, Ore. Come October of that year, a draft notice whisked Edward away to the European theater of WWII. After four years of service, Edward received an honorable discharge and returned home with eight medals and five bronze stars.
When asked what then prompted him to enter the seminary, Edward's first response was "I don't know." After a moment's contemplation, however, he went on to explain that he always wanted to work with youth and that he felt the "good God" had directed his life thusly.
"I just seemed to be set this way, going this way in my life, towards this kind of a life," he added. Edward, the third oldest of nine children in a Catholic family, had always known religion as a comfort.
However, the assuredness with which he now regards his admission into the Junior Rate Academy seminary in Watertown, Wisc. was not always so clear. After three weeks in the school, Edward decided he could no longer take the life of a man of the cloth. As he ascended the stairs to retrieve his trunk full of belongings, he was stopped by a professor who had never before spoken to Edward. He felt it was "a providential occurrence" that found the Brother imploring Edward to stay another six months. He knew then that "God had something for me to do in this sort of a life, something no one else could do."
Edward did stay; he took his final vows in 1947 and now celebrates 53 years as a professed brother.
Edward spent several years at the novitiate in Rolling Prairie, Ind., before making his first move to South Bend. Edward knew he was not interested in teaching, so when an opportunity opened for a door-to-door salesman for Ave Maria Press out of Notre Dame, he followed.
After 20 years, he left this position to take on the task of commissioner at the all-male boarding school, LeMans Academy, in Ind. Ten years later, he made his final return to Notre Dame and joined the Brothers at Columba Hall.
"I've had my ups and downs like anybody else, but it's been a very rewarding life," he reflects. "I was meant to go this way, to dedicate myself to the religious life. It can be hard, though. When you make a commitment, it pinches sometimes. Married people experience that after the first few years; things begin to pinch. We Brothers understand. We all make commitments — married people, Brothers, Sisters. But once you make a commitment, there is no backing off."
Now retired, Edward's days are filled with swimming, bicycling, stamp collecting and spending time with people. While he is sure the Brotherhood is his calling, he does not consider himself a highly religious man.
"I don't know if I'm much of a Monk or anything," he says laughing, "but I belong with the people because my life is dedicated to the people; wherever they are, I am always available."
In our conversations, Edward regaled tales of students, University employees and fellow veterans with whom he has maintained contact over the years. He even told of the one brush with romance he had with a younger girl before he was drafted.
"She was a wonderful girl and we had a beautiful relationship," he reminisces. "But she hardly said anything. I never knew what she felt. Then I went away for the war, and she found someone else she liked better, I guess. That was the one little bit of romance I had. Boy, she was beautiful. I think I'll try to find her when I go back to Portland next."
"See? I just like to keep up with people, you know. I care for them," Edward added. For Edward, people are his livelihood.
As I sat speaking with him and the other Brothers at Columba Hall over dinner the other evening, I was not so much impressed by Edward's 11 year vigil for Old Glory. What impressed me more was the intelligence and easygoing nature of this man with whom I kept company. The meeting with Edward was far from what I had expected. I thought I would be speaking briefly to a man regarding that which he is most recognized for — the flags.
Instead, I found myself discussing life, politics, love and religion with a man who spoke assuredly from experience far greater than I have encountered before. Now, in retrospect, what strikes me the most from our talks is not the decorations and accomplishments of Edward as a veteran, not the service as a Holy Cross Brother but the advice he gave as a human.
"We concentrate too much on the negative things we do," he feels. "But you're influencing people's lives and doing more good than you really know. Don't ever think you're not doing anything worthwhile."
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Scene Stories for Friday, October 6, 2000