MONMOUTH — For 14 years, Larry Eckhardt has been planting U.S. flags for fallen soldiers, police officers and firefighters, for children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and for soldiers coming home. His income is the donations of others. During that time, Eckhardt, who has earned himself the nickname “The Flagman,” has planted around 497,000 flags in 14 states, as far west as Nebraska and as far east as Ohio. As far north as Minnesota and as far south as Arkansas.
In December, however, Eckhardt was diagnosed with an aggressive thyroid cancer, which spread to the area between his trachea and larynx. Three thousand flags away from his goal of 500,000, he has had to put his activities on hiatus due to intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Although he has health insurance, the costs have been adding up.
“The gas mileage, the copays,” Eckhardt said after leaving radiation treatment earlier this month. “The insurance helps quite a bit, but when it’s $45 an office visit and four doctors in one day, it adds up.”
Eckhardt said he got his inspiration to plant flags after attending a soldier’s funeral 14 years ago.
“There were not many flags there,” Eckhardt said. “There’s no town out there that can afford to have 2,000 flags on standby in case we need them.”
That figure of 2,000 is what Eckhardt says is normally the minimum number of flags he and local volunteers will put up. In the case of a funeral, he said, flags will line the entire route from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery.
“If a body is traveling there are flags beside it.” Eckhardt said.
Over the years, he said he’s been at 197 funerals.
Little York Mayor and Fire Captain Steve Melleny has known Eckhardt the entire time he’s lived in the town, which is now 15 years. Melleny said Eckhardt often leaves town for two to three weeks at a time to plant flags in different areas, and currently has a reserve of 2,000 flags.
“When he goes to a certain city, he’ll send a message that he’s going to this place, and to start looking for volunteers,” Melleny said. “He doesn’t ask for money to do it. People along the way will donate to him or show him a hotel room he can stay at.”
To help cover the cost of his treatment and travel, the Monmouth Knights of Columbus held a recent fundraiser. Melleny planned a visit ahead of that for the set-up.
“He’s still adamant about helping us (today),” Melleny said. “He told me he will be there whether in a chair or not. We’re hoping this benefit will help take the (pressure) off him.”