By LEWIS W. DIUGUID
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
When most people look up at the Perkins Restaurant near Interstate 35 in Olathe, Kan., they'll see the large landmark American flag.
When Ethel BaderGray looks up, she sees her best work. BaderGray is a waitress at the Perkins Restaurant and Bakery.
But she also doubles as the mender of the restaurant's 20- by 50-foot U.S. flags. We met one morning at Perkins as she served food to a dining room of people.
We talked later in the basement of her Olathe home. Her love for the Stars and Stripes soars every day. It's worth sharing for Flag Day today.
The 62-year-old gets help from her husband, John Gray, to ensure that the heavy flag in her care doesn't touch the ground. It's a handful.
BaderGray tells stories of the flag swelling in the wind and lifting co-workers off the ground when they've tried to lower it. Perkins employees revere working with it, touching it and caring for it.
BaderGray doesn't like to see the American flag tattered. Neither does Gary McDonald, general manager of the restaurant.
To McDonald, BaderGray is a godsend. "I think the world of her," he said. He admires her work and her patriotism.
But the wind is Old Glory's nemesis. BaderGray is her best friend.
'Greatest country on earth'
"I'm proud of the flag, and I think it should be kept in good repair," she said. "It represents the greatest country on earth. We've got more freedoms here than any country.
"Some of us appreciate that. Our men and women have fought long and hard to make our country free and to keep it that way."
She and her husband pulled the flag from a big box and fed it onto an elevated roller attached to the basement rafters.
Perkins' $400-$700 flags are made of the same nylon as parachutes. The repairs last about a month.
BaderGray trimmed frayed material from the end of the flag. Gray helped her lower the mammoth banner back into its box near her Bernina sewing machine, which she bought new for $600 including the cabinet in 1965.
BaderGray, a native of Wall, S.D., used her sewing skills to make and mend clothes for her four daughters. "I try to sew the best possible that I can so that I'm proud of my results," BaderGray said.
She also sews ties made of a colorful U.S. flag design for a group she's in called the "Side by Side Singers and Strutters." In addition to entertaining, the group shares lessons with audiences such as telling how Betsy Ross made the first American flag.
BaderGray explained that she does the work on the flag partly because her husband, three of her brothers and one of her daughters served in the armed forces.
McDonald said BaderGray does the work for two complimentary meals for her and her husband.
A flexible lamp directs light near the needle of her sewing machine. A neon fixture illuminates the rest of the work space. People ask how she mends something so large.
BaderGray responds, "You just start at one end and sew clean to the other end. It takes a while 'cause I sew it three times."
She meticulously folded the fabric into an inch-deep hem and then fed the cloth under the needle. Her sewing machine whirred, the white nylon thread jerked from its spool as the needle danced, giving the flag a solid multiple zigzag stitch. "It's the best mending stitch they ever made," BaderGray said.
Her hands deftly directed the fabric in a straight line through the sewing machine. One-and-a-half feet into the job, the needle stalled as it hit the bump connecting the first red and white panels.
BaderGray turned the knob on the side of the machine to coax it forward. When the machine was new, it wouldn't have missed a beat. But that was 40 years ago.
"It had a 30-year warranty, and I outran that," she said laughing. The sewing machine advanced from the red to the white panel. BaderGray shifted the cloth and did more folds on it so she could continue to uniformly feed the flag through the sewing machine.
Gray said he admires the work that his wife does and enjoys helping. "I'm a veteran, and if I can do something for the flag and country I'm all for it," he said.
The machine advanced through more panels of reds and whites. BaderGray talked about her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as she sewed.
Her family adds to the pride she feels for the flag and the country. "I think, 'How did I get so lucky?'" she said.
All of us should ask the same question every day and be thankful that Old Glory still flies.
X Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star's Editorial Board. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.