By Patricia Beech
As the official flag folder for the Adams County Honor Guard, Vietnam veteran Richard Jones has the solemn graveside duty of folding and presenting the American flag to family members at local military funerals.
It is a job in which he takes enormous pride and care.
He admits to being a little surprised when his close friend, the late Tom Hughes of Seaman, asked him to break with military flag protocol as a personal favor to him.
“I have this flag that means an awful lot to me,” Hughes told Jones. “I would like for you to fold that flag for me when I die and place it with me in the coffin before they bury me.”
Jones says his friend offered no further explanation.
“That’s all that was said,” Jones recalled in a phone interview with the Defender. “He didn’t tell me anything about the history of the flag.”
When Hughes, at the age of 99, passed away in late July, Jones paid a visit to the family to tell them about his friend’s request.
“We fold the flag at the cemetery, so this request was outside military protocol,” he says. “I left it up to them whether or not it would happen.”
Hughes youngest daughter, Connie Hohn, wasn’t surprised by her father’s unexpected request.
“I knew something was going on a few months ago when he asked me to take it to the dry cleaners,” she told Jones, who admits he was stunned when Connie shared the story of the flag’s history with him.
The flag, which had only 48 stars, had been draped across the coffin of Hughes’s older brother, William Arthur, who fought in World War I.
William survived the war, but when the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 swept around the world, he was among the millions who succumbed to the deadly disease.
His body was transported home from Europe in 1920, and the flag bearing only 48 stars was presented to his grieving parents.
Tom was only two years old at the time.
And while he may not have remembered his older brother, he was taught to revere the flag that signified William’s service and sacrifice.
Hughes himself served as a Sergeant in the 147th Army Infantry in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Silver Star for gallantry in action after saving a fellow soldier’s life in the Battle of Guadalcanal, Feb. 3, 1943.
According to Hohn, it took her father eight hours to drag the wounded man to safety through enemy and friendly fire.
For his bravery, Hughes was inducted into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame in 2008 for “showing daring that was an inspiration to his fellow soldiers”.
When WWII ended in 1945, Hughes returned home to build a life in the post-war world. He found work, married, had children, and through it all, he held on to his late brother’s flag.
In the days after his death, the Hughes family gave the flag to Jones so that he and the other Honor Guard members could become accustomed to handling the thin, century-old material.
“Knowing that the Hughes family kept this flag all these years was amazing to me,” said Jones after taking possession of the flag to prepare for Tom’s funeral service.
He says he prayed he would be able to hold his emotions in check.
“I was really nervous about the ceremony and working with such an old flag, so it was really a blessing to have a whole week to practice with it,” he says. “After spending time touching it, and thinking about it, and working with it, I got a lot of my feelings out of the way and was able to handle it better.”
During the ceremony at the Countryside Church in Seaman, Hohn presented the century-old flag to Jones, who then shared the story of its history as he and WWII veteran, J.J. Whitley of West Union, folded the delicate material into a triangle and placed it into the casket with Hughes.
Jones and the Honor Guard members also performed the regular military rites for Hughes at the Mount Leigh Cemetery near Seaman.
“He was a great person, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to know him for over 20 years,” says Jones. “ There was no better man than Tom. I never met anyone who had anything bad to say about him, and I never heard him say a bad word about anybody. He was someone you could count on if you needed him. We’re all going to miss him.”