#893: Just Like a Waving Flag

February 23rd, 2018

Gus Porter’s father would joke he had the most famous rear end in Chicago.

It was 1987 and Mayor Harold Washington had just died in office. WGN Flag & Decorating, a small shop in South Chicago, had the city contract to decorate council chambers in black mourning bunting. An Associated Press photographer snapped a shot of Porter’s dad and other WGN employees at work, mislabeled them as city employees and sent a photo of their backs out to the world.

It wasn’t the first big job for WGN — named for Porter’s great-grandfather William George Newbould and no relation to the TV station (but people always ask, Porter said). They were the ones who decorated Marshall Fields for V-Day in 1945. They still decorate police stations and fire houses when tragedy hits. They work with the archdiocese when popes or bishops pass.

But they were there for happier moments too. They do the championship flags for the Blackhawks and White Sox, decorated the official city visit when Queen Elizabeth II came to call in 1959. They put Harry Caray’s face on his steakhouses, cover universities and businesses, make the sigils for Oak Lawn, Orland Park, South Holland, Cook County and scores more governments.

If it happened in Chicago, they’ve been there. Since 1916.

Photo by AJ Kane.

The origin story sounds made-up, meaning I 100 percent believe it. It’s too perfect and odd to be a forgery. In 1916, Newbould bought an American flag in and someone offered to buy it from him for more than what he paid. This got him thinking maybe flags were a good hustle.

The man the community called “Grandpa” died in 1985 at the age of 87. He had been 18 when he set the family’s course.

Porter, 38, is the fourth generation. He has worked at the store since he was 4, walking around with a magnet to pick up pins Dina Iocco dropped during applique work. She paid him maybe a quarter a pin — neither remembered the exact amount, although Dina did confess she would sometimes sprinkle a few extra pins on the floor for him to find.

He and his sister would also hawk goods when the family owned the concession stands at the University of Notre Dame.

“So my parents would take all of the reject merchandise, like closeouts and things like that, strap them to the cute kid and send them out to use the cute kid appeal to try and get rid of all the merchandise,” Porter said.

Carl “Gus” Porter III. Photo by AJ Kane.

Dina Iocco has worked for all four generations, starting when she was 29, 38 years ago. She had studied dressmaking in her native Italy and sewn women’s clothing for a downtown shop that served Marshall Fields. After her kids were born, she didn’t want to commute downtown every day. She came to the shop and talked to Porter’s grandmother. She told her to talk to Porter’s Uncle Ed. He told her to talk to Grandpa.

“He said, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’” Iocco said.

She started sewing, but learned how to lay out flags on the job, stepping up after Ed moved to Florida. She still remembers Porter’s grandmother’s first instructions.

“She said ‘OK, if you make a mistake, do it again. If you make another mistake, just keep doing it until you get it right.’ She didn’t care, you know. So I made one mistake. We were doing Waste Management and I thought it was an M and I put it upside down instead of a W,” Iocco said, chuckling. “After that one, I was just very careful and there was no mistake. I mean sometime you do make mistake, but it was my first mistake. Waste Management.”

Dina Iocco. Photo by AJ Kane.

Although the business specializes in handmade flags, stitched by the women working in the back room of the shop running in the Skyway’s shadow, they’ve diversified to include everything from signs to the straps that hold crates of DVDs inside Redbox machines. One of their major sources of business, Porter said, is flagpole repair. It’s a niche that’s has taken them hundreds of miles through the Midwest for emergency fixes.

Sports make up a major market. They do the championship flags and banners for the White Sox and Blackhawks. The Hawks are Iocco’s favorite. She loves the details of the feathers and face.

“You open it up, It’s so big and beautiful colors,” she said.

They do all of their manufacturing in their shop on South Chicago Avenue, next to a warehouse stuffed with history. In addition to wooden horses and plastic stars from parade floats long passed, they maintain a stock of the flags of every state and country. They keep some old stock — the leftover flags of companies, logos, even nations that don’t exist anymore.

“We could have moved several times or whatever to get into a nicer area, but this is our home. We take a lot of pride in this place,” Porter said, bursting into laughter. “As old as it is.”

“At least once per week — just the same as I get asked ‘What does WGN stand for? or ‘Are you related to the TV station?’ — people come in ‘Aw look at that Jane Byrne poster! I remember that!’” Porter said. “People see the history and they recognize the history. Just to see them remember and reminisce about everything that has happened since then or remember when that event happened, it’s really cool to see.” Photo by AJ Kane.

And of course, Chicago flags.

The four-starred flag with the two blue stripes symbolizing river branches is a mainstay of the shop. They once had the official city contract for the flag; now they hand-stitch and sell them to any proud Chicagoan who wants something more durable and beautiful than your Chinese-made screen print.

People also love to personalize the flags, replacing the four stars with four… somethings.

“The City of Chicago flag is one of the most versatile flags. People have loved to put different things instead of stars on there, so we’ve done the shamrocks, we just did lawnmowers for a lawnmowing company, we did apples for teachers, we’ve done a couple sports logos on there like they have on Comcast,” Porter said. “People see the Chicago flag, they recognize the Chicago flag, they take pride in the Chicago flag and then they make it their own.”

Maria Rinconeno. Photo by AJ Kane.

Maria Rinconeno has worked at WGN for 32 years. She sits at a machine stitching along chalked-up Chicago star patterns on red blocks pinned to the flag. It’s an easy flag, not like the Blackhawks feathers or the intricate leaves and acorns of suburban Oak Lawn. The more strips of fabric involved in the design, the harder a flag is to get through the machine.

“Sometimes you’re pulling and pulling and pulling — that one is heavy,” she said of the Hawks’ flag.

Photos fill the wall behind her, including a smiling young woman in a crisp new Army uniform.

“This is my daughter, my mom — this is the first time she comes over here, last year — my grandson, my son, my big daughter, the small one, and part of the family,” Maria said,  listing off a small portion of the snapshots.

She doesn’t have to keep the pictures to see family. She can look up and see her sister-in-law Guadalupe sitting at the sewing machine across from her, buried in the white and blue of unfinished Chicago. Maria got Guadalupe the job 29 years ago, just as a different sister-in-law had gotten her a job a few years earlier.

When Maria started at WGN, she didn’t speak any English. She could sew, having worked on slings and bandages at a medical supply company in California, but had to learn the language over 32 years of Chicago stars and Oak Lawn acorns.

“[My sister-in-law] said, ‘You already know she don’t speak English, but she know how to do the work,’” Rinconeno said.

Guadalupe Rinconeno. Photo by AJ Kane.

The men and women of WGN were there when Harold fell, when the second stab at a World War fell flat for the other guys. They were there when popes died, when queens came to call, when officers and firefighters gave their lives in duty. They were there when sports teams took it all, when restaurants, cities, companies and counties wanted to tell the world who they were.

They were there.

Still are.

Photo by AJ Kane.

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