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Rock Hill veteran who waved the American flag on I-77 dies

Nobody told Leonard Farrington, 79 at the time, to take that American flag down, pole and all, from where it flew outside his Rock Hill house on Sept. 12, 2001.

Nobody told him to drive a few miles to the Sutton Road bridge soaring above Interstate 77.

But Farrington did just that. He stood there, alone, on the Fort Mill bridge, the day after the terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.

And he waved that flag.

Trucks tooted and cars honked and Farrington, almost 20 years retired from Westinghouse, switched that flag from right arm to left arm.

"Don't mess with America!" old Len Farrington shouted until his voice was gone. He waved the flag and waved it some more. Farrington waved for hours until he could not stand another minute and his arms felt like lead.

Dead tired, the World War II Navy veteran - who ran out of a movie theater when the Pearl Harbor attacks were announced in 1941 and enlisted on the spot, then spent five years on ships without word from home or knowing if he would die in the Pacific - fell into bed that night in 2001.

He got up the next morning, kissed his wife, Betty, who was used to this tough rascal, and went back to the Sutton Road bridge to do it all over again.

An unwilling legend was born.

Leonard Farrington - a celebrity of sorts, brought to some public notice kicking and screaming for waving a flag he thought was his duty to wave and nothing more - died Tuesday. He was 89.

But his legacy of flag-waving will live on forever.

When he was alive, Farrington, if you prodded him in just the right way, would explain why he did what he did.

"I didn't tell anybody, didn't alert anybody, because I didn't do it for attention to me," Farrington said years later about why he waved that flag for hours after the 9/11 attacks. "I did it to show people nobody was punching this country in the gut and not expect a stiff kick in the ...

"We don't take this stuff in America."

Then Farrington waved his flag on Sept. 11, 2002. He waved off media because he was not the story - his flag and his country were the story.

"Move out of the way. I'm not here for interviews; I'm here for America," Farrington yelled out when asked why he was on that bridge with his gray hair and his flag. "Spit in their eye; damn terrorists oughta meet me and we'll find out who's tougher."

The honks from drivers went on for hours.

And in 2003 and 2004, on the 9/11 anniversary, Farrington waved yet again. Until finally one year a sheepish state trooper showed up on that bridge and told Farrington that as great as he was, his flag waving was apt to cause a pile-up, and it had to stop.

"Took the law to stop me from waving my flag," Farrington said back then. "No terrorist is gonna stop me, though. This is America."

Farrington always said that he waved that flag not just to honor those who died in the attacks, but to show that real Americans do not yield to terrorists or anybody else.

Farrington was no mealy-mouthed politician, though. He called most of those who wave a flag trying to hustle favor for cheap gain - be they politicians or just phonies - fools and charlatans.

"Stick their arm out the window when it's raining, tell you it's dry," Farrington said of politicians.

Just a couple of years ago, as the 9/11 anniversary loomed, a colossal oaf from Florida with a following of about 43 sheep, a pastor of all things, planned to burn the Koran. He did it as a publicity stunt for himself.

"The idiot is causing an international incident, and on the day we remember all those who died," Farrington shouted out. "He meets me, he would find out what 9/11 is all about."

When York County volunteer firefighters brought in a piece of the World Trade Center in early 2011, a beam from the wreckage for a permanent memorial, Farrington saluted the procession.

"A great man; everybody remembers that man waving his flag all those years," said Bob Davenport, a Bethesda volunteer instrumental in getting the beam, who drove that beam under the Sutton Road bridge.

"He was a true patriot from the beginning, waving his flag - an inspiration."

Then last year, in early May, Navy Seals shot Osama bin Laden square between the eyes, and the worst villain of all 9/11 villains was dead.

Leonard Farrington, 89 by then, unfolded that special flag from a special drawer he kept it in. This was no ordinary day. His wife for 63 years, Betty, tough and tender as they come, drove Leonard to that Sutton Road bridge.

Farrington, in tiny steps, against all doctor's orders, stomped onto the span like King leaving Selma, carrying that flag.

He sure looked no different than Marines on Iwo Jima during World War II, Old Glory defiant against evil, and he waved his flag. He said he was doing it to honor those who died in the military since 9/11, too.

"No bin Laden is ever going to beat the United States of America," said Farrington that day. "Nobody takes on us and wins. You come after us, you get smacked right in the mouth.

"Uncle Sam knocks clowns like bin Laden on their rear ends."

Farrington lasted about 10 minutes. Horns honked and headlights flashed below. His old arms waved and his old legs teetered and he beamed and shouted.

An Army wife stopped and thanked Farrington that day, and he waited for that pretty lady to leave so he could say, "Bin Laden, we got you, you son of a b----. Take that, bin Laden!"

The Farrington legend, on the front page again after years gone, waving his flag, was reborn.

When firefighters and cops bicycled through Rock Hill - on their way from Florida to New York City to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 - Farrington was there to welcome them in.

"Give 'em hell," Farrington told the oldest rider, a tough cop and ex-New York firefighter nicknamed Pappy. "Stick it in the terrorist's ears. Bombs? I would tell them where to stick their bombs."

In September, to help mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Farrington lent his flag to the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group, which is dedicated to supporting military veterans.

Hundreds of people attended a ceremony honoring Farrington and his flag at Aldersgate United Methodist Church that Sunday - 9/11/11.

A rider in the group then waved the flag from the Sutton Road bridge - as one of dozens of flags waved from several York County bridges on that day.

Farrington started it all. A single man. A solo act.

"I didn't do anything for me; I did it for my country and its people," Farrington said then, as he fought off being 89 like a lion tamer wards off fangs.

That Sunday, like all Sundays, Farrington went to church and sang hymns and talked to young kids, who all clung to his every word about America.

An America that stands up for the poor and downtrodden and discriminated against.

An America that loves all people of all colors and religions.

An America of free speech, earned in blood, that includes waving a flag.

"Salty as he was, tough as he was, the young people just loved him - and he loved them," said the Rev. Pam Ledbetter, Aldersgate's pastor. "And he loved to wave that flag."

But Tuesday morning, the lion's fangs could be fended off by that chair and whip no more.

The Farrington family still has the flag that Leonard Farrington waved for no other reason than to sneer at terrorists and show how tough an old man could be.

"My father loved waving that flag for this country," said one his sons, Bruce. "He loved America. I mean, loved."

Rolling Thunder will escort Farrington's body Saturday, the day he is buried, from the funeral home to Aldersgate church.

And later this year, on Sept. 11, Rolling Thunder members will borrow that flag again, stand on the Sutton Road bridge, and honor Leonard Farrington and America.

The Farrington flag, waving, that Leonard alone stood with, defiantly, for so long.