WRENTHAM — Tony Rukus fought under the American flag aboard the USS Massachusetts during World War II, and when state officials told him Wednesday that he had to take that flag down, he was ready to fight again.
“It’s my flag; I fought for that flag,” said Rukus, 93. “If anybody tries to come take my flag, I’ll kick them the hell out.”
On Wednesday, Rukus and the rest of the residents of the Wrentham Housing Authority’s complex on Garden Lane found blue fliers on their doors, telling them that public display of American flags was not allowed.
“Due to a tenant’s repeated complaints reported to Department of Housing and Community Development over the July Fourth holiday, Wrentham Housing Authority has been informed that the public display of the American flag in common areas is not permitted,” read the flier. “As a result, all American flag displays must be restricted to the interior of your apartment. Flags may be visible through the apartment windows, but may not be displayed on the exterior of the buildings or on the ground around the buildings.”
By the following morning, however, after being flooded with complaints, the Department of Housing and Community Development had quickly backtracked.
“We were not aware of this decision when it was made, and it was a mistake that is being corrected immediately,” Jason Lefferts, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement.
Lefferts said the department received several complaints, the first on June 25 and continuing over the Fourth of July holiday, from a person purporting to be a tenant upset about public display of an American flag.
While department policy bars private items being displayed in the common area of public housing, Lefferts said, it “does not extend to respectful and safe displays of the American flag.”
Lefferts said in a phone interview that the complaints were focused on a single flag. Some residents said two flags have regularly flown in the complex for years: a small one near the entrance and a larger one in the back.
Outcry over the brief banning of the flag was vehement, said Margaret Peterson, the resident representative on the Wrentham Housing Authority’s board of directors.
She said the housing authority office on-site received hate mail and calls and visits protesting the ban all day.
“It was terrible,” said Peterson, 84. “I couldn’t believe people could be that cruel.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Stars and Stripes dotted just about every lawn and door frame in the complex.
Tim Holland, 78, a resident of the public housing complex for 12 years, said a local politician had come by and distributed “arm-fulls” of flags early in the day.
“I’m disgusted people would complain about flying the American flag,” said Holland, who said the flag that spurred the complaint has flown daily since he moved in.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “This is pride in the country.”
But Ross Heroux, 50, who was walking his dog past a lawn with seven flags planted in it, said the whole incident “proved the American way works,”
“Even when wronged, people can call in to get it fixed,” he said. “That’s why we are proud to fly the flag, because we are listened to.”
Resident Melissa Durand, 32, who has friends in Japan, said she was filled with pride when American troops helped the Japanese after the Fukushima disaster.
“I love my flag,” she said. “It reminds me of US soldiers trying to help those in Japan.”
She said she will fly the flag “forever and ever, to say I care.”
Residents’ strong sentiments were echoed by selectmen. Joseph Botaish, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said in the statement that it was a “great shame” that the housing residents had been “subjected to this ridiculous exercise of being told they cannot display American flags.”
He continued, “I would like to know how such a positively silly directive was issued and why nobody involved had the common courtesy to speak to town officials before dragging the name of Wrentham through the mud.”
US Senator Scott Brown, a Wrentham resident, also relased a statement opposing the ban.
“Flying the American flag should never be controversial, and no citizen should ever be prevented from doing so,” read the statement on Brown’s Senate website. “I was deeply disturbed to learn of this misguided decision.”
As Tim Holland sat on his lawn chair Thursday, as he does every day, he thought back to his youth. “People had a little more pride back then,” Holland said. “Yeah, I’m sad to see where we’ve come.”
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