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Sewickley veteran says placing flags a fitting way to honor fallen soldiers

| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 8:13 p.m.
Debra Utterback | Sewickley Herald
Sonny Abercrombie and his wife Lee have placed flags on the graves of veterans in six Sewickley-area cemeteries in advance of Memorial Day.
Debra Utterback | Sewickley Herald
Sonny Abercrombie of Sewickley has been placing flags on the graves of local veterans for 45 years.
Debra Utterback | Sewickley Herald
Sonny Abercrombie of Sewickley adjusts a flag holder in St. James Cemetery Monday. The U.S. Air Force veteran has placed flags on veterans' graves for the past 45 years in cemeteries in the Sewickley area.

Sonny Abercrombie has a simple answer as to why he has been placing flags on veterans' graves for Memorial Day each year for the past 45 years.

“It's an honor to do it — to pay tribute. I look forward to doing it every year,” said Abercrombie, 82, of Sewickley.

The Air Force veteran who served in the Korean War started marking veterans' graves with flags first in Sewickley Cemetery to help American Legion Post 4, where he has been a member for 61 years.

Now, he and other volunteers place 2,000 flags in six Sewickley-area cemeteries every year.

When he first started, Abercrombie said, there weren't a lot of volunteers, and it took him about four or five hours to put all of the flags just in Sewickley Cemetery.

And the first time, he didn't have a list of where the veterans were buried, so he walked the entire cemetery looking at all the graves to find them.

Today, there are about 20 friends, relatives and members of Orchard Hill Church in Franklin Park who help place the 1,200 flags in Sewickley Cemetery each year. And it now takes a total of five hours to “flag” all the cemeteries.

Abercrombie and his wife, Lee, went to the Sewickley Cemetery on Saturday to put flags in the “obscure” places.

“We go down what we call the goat trail that goes way back and under, and no one knows it's there. But, there are veterans there,” Lee said.

She and Abercrombie also take flags to graves located on a steep hill area before other volunteers show up.

About 27 years ago, they added five more cemeteries to the list — St. Paul's Lutheran Cemetery in Sewickley Heights; Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church's cemetery in Ohio Township; St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Glenfield; Blackburn Cemetery in Sewickley Heights; and St. James Cemetery, Sewickley Heights.

Abercrombie and his wife handle the flags themselves about two weeks before Memorial Day at the smaller cemeteries, which have between 200 and 250 veterans' graves each.

About 10 volunteers help at the St. James Cemetery, where flags were installed last week.

Allegheny County provides the flags, which will remain in the cemeteries until January, when Abercrombie and his wife will collect them and keep for a flag-retiring ceremony the next Memorial Day.

The Abercrombies' four children all have helped with the flags at one time or another. Their son, Cliff, lives in Sewickley and is part of the Sewickley Memorial Day committee.

Abercrombie's efforts have not gone unnoticed in the community.

National Guard Lt. Col. Bryan O'Neill of Aleppo Township and his family have been helping with the flags for about seven years.

“When I was little, I saw all the flags in the cemetery and didn't know how they got there, and it was, at one time, just this one guy,” O'Neill said.

He has known Abercrombie his entire life because he and O'Neill's dad were in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5657 and the America Legion together.

“He's one of those people who you meet in life you want to be like him someday,” he said.

“He's a great guy in the community, a great American and someone you can look up to.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or jbarron@tribweb.com.

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