Warren Bushway sets his alarm for 5:30 a.m., but he rarely needs the wake-up call.
“I was up at 4:57 this morning,” he said. “It’s always been this way.”
And almost always, at least as long as Bushway can remember, he has awakened in the early-morning light to fulfill a ritual that has become a community expectation.
At 93½ (he cherishes that half) Bushway, or “Bud” as everyone calls him, slides open the wood door of his kitchen closet, reaches up to the top shelf and pulls down his 4- by 6-foot U.S. flag. Cradling it in his left arm, he reaches with his right for his cane (“my third leg,” he jokes). Hunched over, but moving at an impressive clip, he heads out the door, down a ramp and toward a 25-foot flagpole in his front yard.
Squinting in the sun, he tugs on the rope to assure it’s taut, then clips on the flag as cars, buses and bicyclists whoosh past on his busy St. Louis Park street. Ten tugs and the Red, White and Blue is flying.
“That’s it,” said Bushway, wearing his signature short-sleeved plaid shirt, dark slacks and suspenders, the latter a necessity to accommodate a feeding tube in his stomach.
He turns toward his immaculately manicured lawn, which he proudly keeps up himself. “Thank you, Lord, for another day,” he says quietly, looking skyward. “I do appreciate it very, very much.”
“And, Bev, I am still thinking about you, as always. Love you. Love you. Love you.”
Bushway will return tonight, before sundown, to lower the flag. He will raise it again tomorrow.
“I get choked up when he does it,” said his daughter, Gayle Wilkins, of O’Fallon, Ill., who was in Minneapolis for a recent visit. She was reared in this house with her three younger siblings.
“I’ve watched him do this since I was 5 years old,” Wilkins said, “but every time, I almost cry.”
Bushway is apologetic when asked what inspired him to perform this patriotic act every day of the year, unless rain or snow prohibits it. He says he doesn’t know. “I’m no fanatic,” he said. “I just like flying the flag.”
His kids have another hunch.
Bushway, one of six children, grew up during the Great Depression, dropped out of school after ninth grade and found odd jobs, which led him to the San Francisco shipyards. At 22, he was drafted into the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division, along with three of his brothers. Howard served in the Air Force, Harry in the Marines and Leroy on artillery duty in Asia.
“Thank goodness, we all came back,” Bushway said. He served for “two years, 11 months and five days,” including in the Battle of Peleliu in the Pacific Theater. He never was on the front lines, but was close enough to hear the shooting.
He keeps a laminated copy of his discharge papers in a kitchen drawer, dated Feb. 5, 1946. Shortly after he returned home, the flag-raising began, small flags at first, flying from a 2-foot pole near his doorstep.
He worked as a street foreman for the city of St. Louis Park for 30 years, the last three as superintendent. He retired in 1982.
He met Bev through his sister, Lorraine, who tried to discourage the relationship. “He’s always working,” she told Bev, “and, when he’s not, he’s fishing or hunting.”
Bev and Bud were married in 1951 at the courthouse. Bev had a stroke at 65 in 1996 and Bushway cared for her for 11 years before she died in 2007 — “real good care,” said their daughter Gayle, 63.
In addition to Gayle, they have Jeannette Macy, 62, who lives near St. Cloud, Michael Bushway, 59, of Maple Grove, and MaryKay Herbert, 58, of Corcoran, as well as eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
MaryKay remembers her father constructing flagpoles from clotheslines when the kids were little. He eventually bought the soaring flagpole that stands near the boulevard, and had it installed professionally. He has always bought flags from the American Legion or VFW and returns them there for proper disposal when they are worn or damaged.
“Christmas and Father’s Day,” Gayle said, “everyone knew what to buy him.”
“I think he’s very proud to be a veteran,” Jeannette said. “I think that’s a part of it.”
It wasn’t long before the Bushway house became the gathering spot for neighborhood kids. “Meet us at the house with the flag,” they’d say. Sometimes, the kids would steal it as a prank. “Boy, was I ticked,” Bushway said.
Bushway sits at his kitchen table, the space largely a still-life homage to Bev. Tiny wood birdhouses hang above the sink. There’s a jar of shells and family photos on a shelf, and a “Beverly’s Kitchen” ceramic hot plate on the counter.
Bushway laughs recalling a morning when he left for work before dawn, just after raising the flag. Around noon, police arrived to make sure that Bev and the kids were all right. He had accidentally hung the flag upside down, the universal sign of peril.
More often, though, his flag was a universal source of pride within the community, and a reminder to take care of one another. One night after Bushway had accompanied Bev to the hospital, a neighbor walked over and took the flag down.
When it’s not up in the morning, he hears about that, too. “Bud must be sick,” he imitates. “It ain’t up.’ ”
He’s been saluted by bicyclists, and touched by surprising kindnesses. “Are you a veteran?” asked a boy passing by from nearby Cedar Manor Elementary School. Yes, I am, he told the boy, whom he guesses was no older than 12.
“He gave me the biggest salute,” Bushway said, his sky-blue eyes tearing up, his easy smile widening. “His parents raised him well.”
Another day, two women from the Daughters of the American Revolution stood at his door, carrying the gift of a flag. “And we had company over and everything,” he said, delighted.
Dee Wuollet, 91, said the respect for her longtime neighbor is well deserved. “I am so proud of him,” said Wuollet, who moved onto the block in 1961. She recently wrote a letter to the editor of the weekly newspaper about Bushway, “our true American citizen.”
A few years ago, Bushway noticed that a large flag flying at a local business was torn. He asked for the owner.
“That is terrible,” he told the man. “I’m a World War II vet and, for $25, you can buy a new one.”
The business owner told him to mind his own business. “I walked out,” Bushway said. “I spoke my piece.”
A few days later, a new flag was flying.
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum