Mountain View couple help keep flag traditions alive

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published January 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 8, 2013 at 1:59 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Billy and Peggy Presley travel to middle schools in Arkansas to teach students about the American flag. The Presleys teach things like respect for the flag, how the national anthem came to be, why there’s a 21-gun salute and where historic flags can be found on display. They also demonstrate how to properly fold a flag and talk about what to do when a flag is worn out.

— When Memphis native Peggy Presley met her husband, Charles “Billy” Presley, more than 50 years ago, she knew little about military traditions.

“He was serving on a Navy destroyer, the USS Hollister,” Peggy said. “I was writing him and had to ask, ‘What is it that a destroyer does?’”

When the Presleys tell that story, they like to watch the faces of the kids in their audience, mouths dropping open in surprise.

“Kids are just an open page, and we just fill them with information,” Peggy said.

For more than a decade, Peggy and Billy have led a special Long May It Wave program for students at schools throughout northeastern Arkansas. The classes are typically held in November, around Veterans Day.

The couple’s involvement in the program started accidentally, Peggy said.

“The service officer from our local Veterans Affairs office was saying that they didn’t have any volunteers, so I was crazy enough to give it a try,” Peggy said.

At first, the program was little more than a pamphlet with facts about the flag and a small business card the students could sign saying they had participated in the class. Peggy and Billy drove to Batesville for their first presentation, on stage in front of 175 students.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to pass out a card to 175 students leaving the room,” Peggy said.

Over the years, their program got more detailed. The Presleys teach respect for the flag, how the national anthem came to be, why there’s a 21-gun salute and where historic flags can be found on display. They demonstrate how to properly fold a flag and talk about what to do when a flag is worn out.

“I go in and hold up this great big wad of papers and say, ‘This is an educational program,’” Peggy said. “The kids all groan. But I put down the papers and say, ‘But let’s just talk.’”

What started out as just a pamphlet and card for each student has turned into a baggy full of information and treats. Each student now gets a small flag, and usually some candy. Peggy takes donations from local groups to help keep her supplies up, but she still ends up spending her own money on extras such as stickers or key chains. All of her supplies are kept in a rolling suitcase that’s never emptied. If they need to, Peggy and Billy can be in and out of a classroom in 30 minutes flat.

Though Peggy and Billy are long past retirement (at 76 and 80 years old, respectively), they don’t anticipate retiring from their teaching jobs anytime soon. If they did, Peggy said, they don’t know that anyone would volunteer to keep the program going.

“They get a lot of the information in civics or social studies in some of the schools,” Peggy said, “but sometimes by the questions the students ask, you know they haven’t heard a thing about the flag.”

After 12 years of teaching the classes, Peggy said, she’s often recognized around town as “the Flag Lady.” The couple often get letters from children after they visit a school. When parents and kids see them out in the town, they run up to give the couple hugs.

“It’s all for the kids,” Peggy said. “I tell ’em that since my kids and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are so far away, they’re stuck with me. They’re our grandkids, too.”

Of all the things they teach the students, Peggy and Billy are most proud when they see that the kids know how to respect the flag. Over the years, Peggy estimates that she’s given the program more than 100 times, at six or eight schools a year and plenty of veterans’ meetings.

In addition to the Long May It Wave program, Peggy and Billy help properly retire American flags in Mountain View, thanks to a flag depository the couple installed downtown. Twice a year, they start a fire in a burning barrel to cleanse it before burning the old, tattered flags. When the ashes are cool, they’re buried.

“The veterans have done so much for us; any little thing we can do for them to respect their work is worth it,” Peggy said.

Although the couple’s home in Mountain View is filled will flags and brochures inside, there’s no flag pole or large flag outside anymore.

“Isn’t that terrible?” Peggy said, laughing. “One of the schools didn’t have one, so we gave it to them.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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