More than 200 area residents came out Thursday afternoon to help plant 2,280 American flags around Estherville Lincoln Central High School, the place where Steve Blass took classes, played football and dreamed of joining the Army. From there the flags extended up and down Central Avenue, all the way up Half Mile Hill. All the way to the heavens, it seemed, with Steve.
For Larry Eckhardt of Little York, Ill., known as The Flag Man, this was the 105th time he brought his cascade of flags to a community where one of her sons had fallen. A community grieving, but wanting to heal. A community like Estherville.
Volunteers, eager to help, perhaps even a bit too eager at times, crowded the pickups where the flags were taken for volunteers to place in that same soil where Steve had lived his life until going off to war.
Volunteers held the flags for placement along Central Avenue near Estherville Lincoln Central High School.
"Steve was absolutely a hero. There's no doubt about it," said Eckhardt. "While he was a hero - there's no doubt you folks are heroes."
Eckhardt instructed volunteers to plant the flags 12 feet apart, urging them to be careful and to stay on one side of the street when placing them.
Candi Wacker and her son Sutton were among the first to place their flags. Wacker said it was to try to show respect and to try to help out.
"I think it's a really respectable thing for us to do because he (Blass) is a war hero," said Jeffrey Perkins, ELC senior. "I think it's really cool that our community's doing this to get our community together."
"This is one of my better towns," said Eckhardt, assessing the turnout. "It's getting better with every town."
Eckhardt said he came up with the idea for the flag project when he saw there were few flags at the funeral for a fallen soldier in his own community. So he did something about it. He bought 50 flags for the next funeral for a fallen soldier. And then another 50 for the next one. And another 50 for the one after that. And now he has 2,280. Pace Properties in St. Louis made a big contribution when it bought 900.
"To me it's the least I can do. Without them (fallen soldiers) we wouldn't be able to do anything," said Eckhardt.
Eckhardt sees genuine gratitude - and healing - from the families of the soldiers.
"They love it. They can't believe the response."