More than 30 years after Dominick Papa, of Howard Beach, saw two American flags tossed in the trash, he still gets teary eyed at the thought of the discarded red, white and blue fabric —a sight which inspired him to replace more than 1,000 worn flags throughout the New York area over the past three decades.
“I’m the flag man,” said Papa, an 86-year-old World War II veteran, referring to his nickname around the neighborhood. “Everybody knows my car — the Police Department, the Fire Department — because I always have at least one flag on it. My license plate says ‘FLAGMAN’ on it.”
As Flag Day, June 14, nears, Papa said he hopes residents will remember what the Stars and Stripes stands for — “a free country.”
“I love this country — that’s why I enlisted,” Papa said.
Papa, who was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Howard Beach in 1975, estimates he has replaced more than 1,000 flags throughout New York, including at cemeteries, homes, schools, police precincts and fire stations. He began his crusade to find and replace the tattered fabric upon seeing the two flags in the trash all those years ago.
“I was the super of a condo, and the porter called me and said, ‘I want to show you something,’” Papa said. “There were two flags in the garbage. There’s no respect for flags.
“I walk around Rockwood Park and see how everyone fights to have a better lawn on Halloween, but on Flag Day you don’t even see a flag out,” Papa continued.
For the 86-year-old, who lives in Howard Beach with his wife, Theresa, the star-spangled banner is emblematic of the country for which he would have died —and for which many of those he knew in World War II did.
After his time serving in the Navy, Papa kept up with military friends for decades —but he noted that many of those he knew in the service have passed away, and he often thinks of them every time he sees the flag.
“I used to mail out 100 or more Christmas cards,” he said. “Now it’s down to one.”
As Papa gets older, he has no plans to slow down and hopes to spread the word about the importance of Old Glory in next year’s Memorial Day parade.
“With all the flag things I do, they should’ve asked me to be in the parade,” Papa said. “I want to be in it. I want my car to be in the parade.”
Patrick Connolly, who served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1971 and who has helped to organize the parade for years, said he would be thrilled if Papa joined the parade next year.
“He’s more than welcome to join the parade,” Connolly said.