Standing with hundreds of other mourners lining Main Street in New Prague on Wednesday, Kristi Mach was amazed at "the little miracle I was witnessing, the little blessing for our community."
It was a stirring tribute for Lance Cpl. Dale Means, 23, a Marine gunner who died Nov. 18 when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
But it was much more, and it started with Larry the Flagman and his van filled with 2,280 American flags.
"We would have mourned, but it wouldn't have been like this -- this many people, this sense of all of us as a community honoring not just Corporal Means, but everyone in the service, now and in the past," she said -- "not without all those flags, and not without Larry."
Larry is Larry Eckhardt, 56, a retired machinist from Little York, Ill. (pop. 331), who drove into town Tuesday morning with his American flags and a request for 50 volunteers to help place the flags and pick them up after the funeral.
New Prague was city No. 97 in eight states for Eckhardt, who started his mission seven years ago when he was aghast after attending a serviceman's funeral with 2,000 mourners and "only a few dozen flags on display."
What he needed was about 50 volunteers to help put up and take down the flags, he told New Prague City Administrator Mike Johnson late Monday, minutes after the Means family gave its blessing for Eckhardt to "honor one of our fallen heroes."
Tears, and volunteers
Eckhardt hopped into his van with a trailer for the 400-mile drive, and Johnson called the radio station and Mach, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. With e-mails and Facebook, Mach shot out requests for volunteers to gather at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the golf course. About 120 people showed up.
"I don't often get choked up, but when I started to talk to those volunteers, I had a difficult time," Johnson said.
"Too often it's easy to just sit by, and it took this guy from Illinois who was never in the military to come here and invite us to honor Corporal Means not just as individuals, but as an entire community," he said. "And we did. We really did."
By Tuesday night, Main Street was lined not just with mourners, but more than 1,300 American flags every 12 feet flying from 10-foot standards and planted by the volunteers.
For safety reasons, the state won't permit flags along the 5 miles of Hwy. 13 connecting the city with a side road to St. Patrick's Church of Cedar Lake, near where Means grew up.
"But a car dealer let us put flags up on his property next to the highway," Mach said. "And he knew the property owner up the road from him. And pretty soon we had a bunch of the highway -- maybe half of it -- with flags flying for Corporal Means, all on private property.
"It was like a snowball -- people connecting with people, people volunteering, people stretching out to make this thing work," she said. "It was amazing. It was a totally amazing community thing that you never could have planned out. It had to happen this way."
'I'm just the delivery guy'
Eckhardt tries to stay in the background, although lots more people have heard of him since he was on CBS Sunday Morning last June.
"My job is just to get the flags there and make sure we get them up," said Eckhardt, who worked at International Harvester until an industrial accident years ago sidelined him. Now he owns and operates an apartment building.
"I'm honored that people let me do this. But I'm just the delivery guy," he said. "I just help people show the gratitude they're already feeling."
That was true for Rachel Harmon, who left this message on Eckhardt's Facebook page Tuesday: "As I left New Prague after work today, I began to cry because I was so overwhelmed by the beautiful tribute you brought to our community in honor of Lance Corporal Dale Means. Thank you for bringing attention to the importance of his life and bringing our community together to recognize his sacrifice. What you do is a wonderful thing. Thank you!"
By late Wednesday, Eckhardt was on the road and headed for Algona, Iowa, for the funeral Saturday of Sgt. Joseph A. Richardson, 23, killed Nov. 16 on patrol in Afghanistan.
With him was more than $6,000 in donations from people in New Prague to help defray his costs to travel and replace about half of his flags every year.
"This is just something I have to do," he said. "When I come into town, the community is feeling its worst with the death of a fallen hero -- but it's also at its best in people come together to honor that hero and support his family. I just play a supporting role, and I'm grateful."
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253