Schools, others to honor Iwo Jima veteran's last request to raise the flag on Tuesday
Seventy-six years to the date of the historic flag-raising during the Battle of Iwo Jima, people will raise flags Tuesday morning to honor the last request of a suburban veteran who was there to witness the iconic moment.
Maine West High School is among the locations where students, teachers, veterans and others will gather at 10 a.m. for a brief flag ceremony and to remember 95-year-old Elwood "Woody" Hughes, a patriot and educator to his dying day.
Hughes, who died Feb. 2 at the age of 95, was a longtime Wheeling resident and teacher and coach at Maine West in Des Plaines. In recent years, he went on the informal speaking circuit at local school assemblies, telling war stories to younger generations.
His lectures were always highlighted by his eyewitness account of the Feb. 23, 1945, flag-raising by his fellow Marines on Mount Suribachi.
Just before his death earlier this month, Hughes asked that he and other veterans be remembered in a similar fashion.
"The flag-raising is important, but it's more about awareness," said Rich Witt, a friend of Hughes who helped arrange his speaking engagements. "The mission was about educating people -- especially youth -- about why it's important for them to get involved in civics and social causes."
Witt is helping organize the flag-raising on Maine West's campus, where a small group will gather outside at the flagpole for a brief ceremony. Witt hopes to have at least two active-duty Marines there, along with members of the school's National Honor Society and a band student who will play reveille.
A tribute is also in the works at Maine East in Park Ridge, where Hughes took a job as a teacher and coach in 1953 at what was then known as Maine Township High School. After helping guide the baseball team to state championships in 1958 and 1959, Hughes joined the founding faculty of Maine West, where he taught business classes and coached basketball and baseball. He retired in 1983.
Witt has also reached out to other schools where Hughes spoke in recent years, including Elk Grove and Conant high schools.
Greg Padovani, chairman of the Veterans Memorial Committee of Arlington Heights, is organizing a tribute in the town where Hughes had become a regular presence at Memorial Day and other veterans events. Hughes was regarded as one of the most highly visible and respected members of the Northwest Suburban Detachment of the Marine Corps League, which is based in Arlington Heights.
They and other veterans groups will conduct a flag ceremony at 10 a.m. Tuesday outside American Legion Post 208. Padovani said it's one of about 100 confirmed locations where flags will be raised in tribute to Hughes and other Iwo Jima veterans.
They're sure to share a few "Woody stories" on Tuesday, like his visit to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial -- a depiction of the Iwo Jima flag-raising -- just outside Washington. Padovani accompanied Hughes on his visit to the memorial during an Honor Flight trip.
"Woody was off the bus in a flash," Padovani recalls. "On one side of the memorial is the Marine Corps emblem. Woody runs over there. He's 89. He's running over there. He stops, comes to attention and starts singing the Marine Corps hymn at the top of his voice. Within a minute, every Marine had gathered around that memorial and were all singing that Marine Corps hymn.
"When they finished, they were all friends. They were all comrades. And Woody was dead center in the middle of that."
When Padovani got the word out about Hughes' last request on his massive email distribution list of veterans and other supporters, he said he got enthusiastic responses from groups as far away as Florida, California and even Germany.
While Hughes especially wanted schools to participate in the flag-raising next week, his request went out to everyone -- businesses, governmental and civic organizations, churches, and individual citizens, Padovani said.
"It's a pretty powerful request, and it's touched the patriotic heartstrings of people all over the world," he said.