Pat Baldwin’s flag-flying hobby started in a pretty standard way: with the 50 stars and 13 stripes of Old Glory flowing in the breeze on the left side of his garage door.
Then one day — May 2, to be exact — Baldwin added a flag to the right side of his garage door. It was the white-and-red flag of Poland, flown to help Baldwin’s Polish neighbors celebrate Polish National Flag Day.
Soon after that, Baldwin added a Mexican flag into the mix. Then China, South Korea, Israel, Latvia, India, Haiti and Croatia followed.
On Persian New Year, which also happened to be Baldwin’s youngest son’s birthday, Baldwin surprised his Azerbaijani neighbor by flying the blue, red and green flag of the mountainous west Asian nation.
“When my neighbor from Azerbaijan walked up to the party, she was thrilled to see the flag,” Baldwin says. “Everyone started asking her about the holiday, and she was super excited to teach us all.”
The woman even took a video of the flag flowing in the breeze and posted it online.
“I guess we went viral on Azerbaijan Facebook,” Baldwin says.
A colorful passion
Baldwin has been fascinated by flags ever since he was a Scout in Troop 156 of Glenview, Ill., part of the Northeast Illinois Council. As he worked his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, he liked learning the right way to fold a flag, the speed at which a flag should be hoisted or lowered, and the rationale for flying a flag at half-staff.
“These were things I liked learning more and more about,” Baldwin says.
Now a father of two, including a 5-year-old Lion Scout and a 3-year-old future Cub Scout, Baldwin has found a new outlet for his passion: a collection of international flags that has now grown to more than 30.
In the process of collecting these flags, Baldwin has grown closer to his neighbors in a way that’s rather refreshing in this era of tall opaque fences and screen-obsessed isolation.
“As I meet more and more of my neighbors, I start to get more and more flags,” Baldwin says. “We live in a very diverse neighborhood, and the more we learn about our neighbors, the more we grow to enjoy it.”
Some neighbors give Baldwin a heads up of which flags he should get and when to fly them. A few have just bought their country’s flag and dropped it off.
“Some I pick up and fly as a surprise,” Baldwin says. “I’ll do some research to see what important holidays the country celebrates.”
Knowing their neighbors
Baldwin’s family spends a lot of time outside. As a result, they see many of their neighbors more than they see families, coworkers and friends.
Baldwin, who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, says he never got to hear the “coming to America” story from his ancestors because they arrived in the U.S. many generations ago.
“Most of us are fairly removed from when our relatives moved to our country,” he says. “I would love to go back and hear from my great-great-grandpa about what is was like coming to America after the potato famine in Ireland. Or what is was like in Germany in the 1800s. If I could go back and have that conversation with one of my relatives, I would learn so much more about myself.”
As a resident in a more diverse neighborhood now, Baldwin relishes the chance to hear fresh “coming to America” stories — to learn what inspired people to seek out a better life in the United States.
“We all share similar journeys and values in life, they may have just happened in different times and places,” he says. “The more I learn about people’s experiences, the more I learn to appreciate the great diversity we have here.”
Fellowship through flags
For proof of that wonderful diversity, just look on either side of Baldwin’s garage.
The American flag flies every day, and it’s the first one posted in the morning and last one taken down in the evening.
But it’s joined by another country’s flag — always chosen to symbolize an important moment in that country’s history.
“People started asking what holiday it was, and what country,” Baldwin says. “That led to a conversation about countries they migrated from, or countries they have connections to.”
One some days, you might see Baldwin flying the double-pennon flag of Nepal, the world’s only non-quadrilateral flag. It’s one of his favorites.
“It’s not typically a shape you see flying,” he says. “Lots of people have questions about that one.”
One day, a neighbor from Nepal introduced himself to Baldwin.
“His mother has always walked past our house in beautiful robes, and she’s always friendly, even though I don’t speak Nepali, and she doesn’t speak English,” Baldwin says. “The first day I flew the Nepal flag, she stopped by and introduced herself. We spoke for about 20 minutes, without understanding a single word the other was saying. It was awesome.”