On 20th anniversary of 9/11, rural Lawrence neighbors renew roadside Old Glory

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

Joe Skeeba, left, and Chris Koenig attach an "Unbreakable" sign over the freshly repainted flag on the side of Skeeba's barn near North 800 Road and old U.S. Highway 59. The flag was originally painted in 2001 after 9/11. The two affixed the refurbished sign on Saturday morning, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, at the same time of morning that the first jet crashed into the World Trade Center.

The flag painted on the barn 20 years ago had badly faded.

That bothered Chris Koenig, who saw the decay as a metaphor for our memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

“It just bummed me out,” he said.

He was a freshman at Pittsburg State University on 9/11, deeply saddened by the day’s horror, and he remembered how seeing the vivid little flag on the barn with the word “Unbreakable” above it as he drove home to Lawrence along old U.S. Highway 59 always heartened him.

“It was really meaningful,” he said Saturday, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

The flag was painted by his neighbor, Joe Skeeba, a Lawrence artist. (Skeeba’s works can be found all over the world, but locally he is best known for the carved glass whales at the Lawrence Indoor Aquatic Center).

Skeeba’s pink barn — barn is what they call it in Pleasant Grove, even though it has nothing to do with livestock these days — sits on a curve near North 800 Road and old U.S. 59. Just weeks before the 9/11 attacks, a drunk driver missed the curve and plowed through the two-story building, which, among other things in its long history, had once served as a grange hall for area farmers.

Skeeba was patiently rebuilding the demolished wall — it had been hit before — and a neighbor, torn up about 9/11, said “You should put a flag on it.”

“So I did,” Skeeba said.

The gesture was meaningful not only to young Koenig as he drove home from college during school breaks but to lots of motorists driving along what was then U.S. 59 before the highway was modernized and moved farther east.

photo by: Contributed

In this undated photo, a family poses in front of Joe Skeeba’s flag barn. Skeeba’s wife, Leslie Reynard, said the family sent her the photo and told her they had regularly taken family photos at the site.

“People would stop and take pictures,” said Leslie Reynard, Skeeba’s wife. Families with kids and dogs. Brides and grooms. People road-tripping across the country.

The rustic but tough little building with the Stars and Stripes had become not just a memorial for 9/11 but a little piece of roadside Americana.

By 2012, though, the highway designation was gone. Local traffic dropped off considerably — not a bad thing for the barn, which had taken a few more hits from inattentive drivers. Old Glory on the barn’s south side slowly began to deteriorate, and — the final insult — the tornado that ripped through Douglas County in May 2019 blew off the “Un” on the “Unbreakable” sign above the flag, leaving a pathetic “breakable” clinging to the wall.

It was too much for Koenig. He rang up Skeeba and began, “This is going to be a strange phone call.” Then he laid out his plan to repaint the flag — he’d do the stripes; Skeeba would do the stars — for the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

And that’s how Saturday morning — as sunny as Sept. 11, 2001 — found the two men, one now 39, the other 72, on ladders hoisting an “Unbreakable” sign over an American flag newly brightened to face the next 20 years.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

Joe Skeeba, left, and Chris Koenig finished their restoration of the flag on Skeeba’s barn Saturday morning, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The final touch was affixing the “Unbreakable” sign above the Stars and Stripes. Skeeba painted the stars, and Koenig handled the stripes.


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