If Leonard Farrington were alive Saturday, and saw the crowd, and the fuss, first at his church and then on the Sutton Road bridge over Interstate 77 with all the American flags, he would have gone home.
Farrington loved America and his love was his alone. He waved his American flag alone from that bridge, for a decade on Sept. 11, and he did it for the sole reason of putting a thumb square in the eye of the world’s terrorists who would dare attack his country on Sept. 11, 2001.
Leonard Farrington died in 2012 at age 89. And that’s what all the fuss was about Saturday – dedicating that bridge, legally and forever, with the stamp of approval of the state of South Carolina, the “Leonard A. Farrington 9/11 Memorial Bridge.”
Even politicians that Farrington had no use for, of any party, could not mess this up.
“Len is up there right now, in heaven, smiling,” said his widow , Betty Farrington. “He’s waving his flag, too. He loved his country. Gosh, he loved America so.”
Leonard Farrington, born so poor in Pennsylvania in 1922 that the only shoes he saw were rumors, was at a movie in 1941 when the show was stopped to say Pearl Harbor was attacked. He ran from the theater and enlisted in the Navy.
He was gone, without so much as a note or anybody knowing where he was, and he was fighting in that awful Pacific, for almost five full years.
By the time he came to Rock Hill 25 years ago Farrington was retired. On Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorists attacked America, Leonard Farrington tried to enlist in the Marines.
“Sir, you are 78 years old,” he was told.
“I could beat Bin Laden with a bayonet all by myself,” Farrington said. “Afghanistan, I could handle in half a day.”
Undaunted, he took the American flag, pole and all, off a porch column at his Rock Hill home and told his wife, “I’ll be back.”
Farrington drove to the Sutton Road bridge over Interstate 77 and waved his flag to the drivers below.
He gave me his first ever-interview after trying to throw me off the bridge.
“I’m not here for publicity, I’m here for this country,” Farrington said that day. “No terrorist beats America.”
His picture was taken with him waving his flag and snarling at terrorists. He became an instant icon.
He waved until his arm almost fell off, so he switched arms. He was so tired by the end of the day he had to crawl to bed.
Farrington did that again every year until he died. He even waved this flag the day after Bin Laden was killed in May 2011.
“Take that Bin Laden!” Farrington roared to the traffic below as his flag waved and his old legs tottered and the oxygen tank he needed rolled next to him like a fumbled football.
He became a media sensation with his love of country and tough demeanor.
Before he died Farrington became so sick that the Rolling Thunder veterans advocacy group took over the duties of flag waving, adding other bridges.
Then after his death, Harvey Mayhill, a Rolling Thunder member and friend from Aldersgate United Methodist Church, asked state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, to see if the legislature would name the bridge after Farrington. Other politicians such as state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, state Rep. Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill, and more leaped aboard.
The vote was 170-0. Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill and it became law.
Saturday, the bridge was dedicated. Mayhill, the friend, emceed a tribute ceremony at the church. The politicians and others from the church and community spoke so highly of Leonard Farrington, as they should, because Leonard Farrington was not a publicity seeker.
He was an American.
He refused to let people be cowed.
So he stood with his flag to inspire the 100,000 people who drive that busiest of all York County roads each day.
He waved his flag to remind each one to stand up and be what he was.
He needed nobody, nor wanted anybody, to tell him to do it. He just did.
Rev. Pam Ledbetter of Aldersgate said Saturday Farrington waved that flag “as a sign to give us all courage to stand up for this country.”
After the tribute, those Rolling Thunder motorcyclists rode to the bridge to unveil the signs that are located at each on of the span on Sutton Road. Betty Farrington rode on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet and beamed like a movie star.
She tore the black plastic off the signs and the dedication was complete.
Dozens of flags were handed out and waved. Betty Farrington was handed the same flag her husband had waved. She strode across the bridge like Martin Luther King Jr. through Selma.
She waved the flag.
“I am standing on Leonard’s official bridge,” Betty Farrington said.
She smiled and waved. Drivers held thumbs up out windows. Cars and trucks honked.
“I’m coming back Wednesday,” Betty said. “With the flag.”
Wednesday is Sept. 11 – 12 years after the attack.
Leonard Farrington will live forever in that concrete and steel and tar of that bridge. Wednesday people will wave flags from that bridge and others.
It all started with an old bent man who stood there and said that it is real men who stand up and wave.