Thousands of children, one 1914 return attendee form a living flag at Fort McHenry

Flag gathering kicks off Star-Spangled Spectacular festival

September 09, 2014|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Myrtle Sanders was just a month old when she and her mother visited Fort McHenry with thousands of others to form the Human Flag in 1914 — 100 years after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

On Tuesday, the 100-year-old Lochearn resident was back, along with 6,600 schoolchildren, teachers and others from across Maryland to form the Star-Spangled Banner Living Flag, a visual kickoff for the seven-day Star-Spangled Spectacular festival commemorating the national anthem's bicentennial.

"I'm happy to be here," said Sanders, who reached centenarian status last month.

The National Park Service, Friends of Fort McHenry and Living Classrooms Foundation hosted Tuesday's event at the fort known as the birthplace of the anthem written by Francis Scott Key as Baltimore defended itself from a British naval attack in September 1814.

Students in grades four through eight donned shiny red, white and blue ponchos and took about two hours to form a 15-star, 13-stripe flag that Fort McHenry curator Gregory Weidman mapped out using GPS technology. She said officials tabulated the flag's dimensions as 187 feet by 270 feet.

Lisa Hansen, director of Friends of Fort McHenry, said it took more than 130 buses to transport students from every school district in Maryland except Dorchester, Kent, St. Mary's and Talbot counties. Each stripe, she said, was made up of hundreds of students. It took 20 youngsters to make each star.

Near the close of the service, students faced the flag flying over the fort and belted out the anthem, led by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Some students said being at Fort McHenry meant missing math and reading classes at school. None seemed to mind.

"When I heard about it, oh gosh, I really wanted to come," said Ana Pence, 10, a fifth-grader at Patterson Park Charter School. "I like to learn about history. It is my favorite subject."

Fellow Patterson Park fifth-grader Tyler Hood 11, anticipated a re-enactment. "I thought the British were going to attack us."

Caroline Phillips, 10, of Matapeake Elementary School in Stevensville said she and her fifth-grade classmates have been learning about the history of the "Star-Spangled Banner" during the first three weeks of school. Her mother, Maryjoe Phillips, recalled that she visited Fort McHenry in grade school as well, and said being there with her daughter gave her a sense of coming full circle.

That was certainly the case for the 100-year-old Sanders, who attended with granddaughter Susan Rowe.

"My mother was a history person, and I understand she brought me here when I was just a month old," Sanders said. She said she lived in South Baltimore until 1976 and used to serve as a substitute teacher. "When I substituted at Francis Scott Key school in 1976, I brought my class here." The Star-Spangled celebration runs through Sept. 16 and includes visits from tall ships and naval ships from all over the world, flyovers from the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and "festival villages" at the Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry and Martin State Airport in Middle River.

Vice President Joe Biden will be at Fort McHenry on Saturday to deliver remarks during a concert that will be broadcast live on PBS at 8 p.m. His remarks are scheduled for 9:30 p.m. "Star-Spangled Spectacular: the 200th Anniversary of our National Anthem" will be broadcast from Pier 6 Pavilion and Fort McHenry with a fireworks display as a backdrop.

Park ranger Kristin Schenning said that in addition to launching the Star-Spangled Spectacular, Tuesday's living flag event was part of Young Defenders, a curriculum-based educational program at Fort McHenry that teaches Baltimore-area students about the defense of the fort and the writing of the anthem.

"We want to talk about the flag and national anthem and what happened here in Baltimore at Fort McHenry and get the kids jazzed about it, so they can go home and share it with their parents," Schenning said.

Among those in attendance Tuesday was Daniel Coolahan of Arbutus, who said oral histories within his family speak of his grandmother, Helen Gray, attending the 1914 flag event when she was 6. This time around, he brought his two children to take part.

"I mostly wanted my kids to be part of it," he said, "as descendants of an original participant."

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.

jburris@baltsun.com

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