"Is Your Flag Showing?"
Downstaters are patriotic. Who knew?
January 4, 1980
Public television, under constant pressure from Congress to confirm its credentials as actual Americans, likes to occasionally solicit the views of country bumpkins who confirm PBS's stereotypes about us'ns in the Midwest. So it happened during the Iran hostage episode, when PBS asked a smalltown Illinoisan to Washington to share her views, thus sparing PBS having to send a reporter to ask her.
At 6:30 in the evening of December 20, central Illinois viewers who tuned in to watch PBS's "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" were surprised to see Dale Lewis Barker, the editor-publisher of Beardstown's Illinoian-Star, sharing a desk with that program's Washington moderator, Jim Lehrer, and discussing the hostage crisis in Iran. They were surprised because Beardstonians' views on world affairs are not habitually solicited by the Eastern media (including even those forty-five miles to the east in Springfield). But those viewers probably were no more surprised to see Barker on the tube than Barker was to be there. Having safely returned to Illinois and to her newspaper offices—located on Wall Street, by the way, which goes to show you don't need a fancy name to have a fancy address—Barker talked about her startling ascendancy into the ranks of the nation's opinion-makers.
"Let me start at the beginning. Back on November 12, I wrote an editorial. I was pretty hot under the collar, like most Americans, about the Iranian situation. I said that I felt that patriotism had bottomed out in this country during the Vietnam encounter, and I said I thought it was time we woke up and did something about it.
''But what could we do? We could try to get huge numbers of people together and march around Washington, but that wouldn't do any good. We needed something to show those people in Iran that you just can't go pushing around the United States of America like that. Well, I called upon our people to fly the flag. The Fourth of July in this town is usually a red, white, and blue day. So I told people to fly their flag, and if they didn't have a flag, to get one, to do something.
"A day or two later, I got in my car with my camera, and I betcha I spent two hours driving around and taking pictures of flags flying in front of homes and businesses all over town. Finally it hit the AP wire, and that's how they heard about it in Washington. Of course I was surprised when the call came from their Washington office. It was Tuesday afternoon. The advance lady discussed it with me and told me they were attempting to get people from smaller papers from other parts of the country together who could give them the pulse and tell them what the down-home folks were thinking. They wanted to know if I could come to Washington in twenty-four hours. I said yes. I left Thursday morning and made a twenty-four hour trip to Washington and back during holiday traffic—which I wouldn't recommend."
Barker had to overcome an inopportune case of laryngitis and a Washington cabbie who took twenty minutes to make what should have been a five minute trip to the WETA studios (a moonlighting bureaucrat, no doubt) to make her appearance. According to one of the proud hometown viewers, she held her own—not surprising, really, since Barker is a television veteran, having had a dog show on Memphis TV some years back—with journalists from Oakland, California (whose citizens are as down-home as folks get in California), Bangor, Maine, and Greenwood, Mississippi.
"I was a little jangled by one thing. I understood from our original discussion that we would talk about what our towns had done. I took a briefcase full of newspapers to do my homework and jog my memory about some of the things we'd done here. When we got there we found out that the Iran crisis in general was to be discussed. I was a little disturbed. It was an adventure."
Before she left for Washington, Barker had managed to squeeze a plug for her impending appearance in her paper. (Beardstonians watch MacNeil-Lehrer on WILL-TV via the local cable TV system.) It is uncertain how large the audience was, partly because MacNeil-Lehrer is one of those shows people say they watch but never do, partly because, as Barker notes, "It all happened so fast," and Beardstown continues to live by its own, less harried pace. The show was seen, however, as reaction the next few days proved. "We had a lot of comments and letters from people expressing how grateful they were to be represented to the nation. Also, we've gotten letters from all over the country."
Barker likes to say that it wasn't she who was invited to Washington to be on national TV really, but Beardstown, and one of the reasons she was disturbed at the unexpected turn the discussions took in the studio was because Beardstown was and is more important to her than Iran, in ways the people in Washington might not understand. "A week after we got in this thing," she recalls, "there were no flags left to buy anywhere in Beardstown. Well, the Jacksonville Courier has a supply of flags (Barker did not explain why, nor did I ask) and they very graciously let us buy their flags and resell them here at the office for our cost. We've probably sold something like 150 flags since we started. Mind you, we're talking about a town of 6,000 people. It is very much a thrill to drive around our town and see six or eight houses in a row with Old Glory shining. It's very, very touching."
Barker is doing her bit to keep Old Glory shining in Beardstown. On the Illinoian-Star's banner, just above where it says, "Cass County's Largest and Only Daily Newspaper,'' she now prints a flag with an admonition phrased in the form of the question, "Is your flag showing?" "President Carter announced on December 17, I think it was, his National Unity Flag Day. That's a month after we started. I don't know, but I like to think we started the whole thing here in Beardstown. We can't claim Old Glory for ourselves. It just makes me thrilled to think that we paved any kind of road for the nation.
"I think a lot of people don't understand small towns," Barker concludes, "and that's really their loss. Every small town has its ups and downs. But it's a hell of a nice thing to know your neighbor. I think we've got a town full of people full of care.'' □