Signatures of thanks: Worthington community plays role in USO flag project
On the website USOmoments.org, a video features four individuals talking about why they signed a giant flag — a USO promotion to create the world’s largest thank-you for U.S. troops and their families and break a world record.
But the subjects in this video aren’t just random people; they are neighbors, friends, family and co-workers — all living in Worthington. And while people can digitally sign the flag on the website, there will also be a local opportunity to sign a section of it in person.
In celebration of Military Appreciation Month, the USO launched this latest component of its “Every Moment Counts” campaign, “inviting the American people to show their gratitude for men and women in uniform by joining them in attempting to set a Guinness World Record for ‘most signatures on a flag.’” The flag has the potential to hold 201,600 signatures, with the current record at 33,274.
The USO — United Services Organization — is a non-profit organization founded in 1941 that provides programs, services and entertainment to U.S. troops and their families. It works in partnership with the Department of Defense, but is not a government agency.
Eric Raum, who is employed by the USO, was tasked with creating a video that would explain the concept and inspire people to be part of the flag project. The son-in-law of Kim and Sarah Milbrandt of Worthington, he decided Worthington would be a good place to film it.
“We wanted to show the human aspect of this, the personal connections,” explained Raum, adding that the locale was undecided. “That part they left in my hands. That’s what brought me back to the United States. I haven’t lived in the U.S. since 2008, so I’m a little out of touch, but my wonderful wife, Eliza, and her family are plugged into the community here. So when we talked about what our vision is for this, we decided there was no better cross-section of life here than in Worthington.”
Raum, who grew up in Spooner, Wis., met Eliza at Bethel College in St. Paul. He first connected with the USO while playing with a rock band that did an overseas troupe tour to Iraq and Kuwait. When his music career ended, he resolved to live overseas, so he moved to Kuwait and eventually was hired by the USO as regional manager of communications for Southeast Asia.
“That’s my official title,” he said, “but really, I’m the Camera Guy.”
The first part of his USO career, Raum lived in Iraq and Afghanistan, but after he and Eliza were married, they settled in the much-safer locale of Dubai. His job still regularly requires him to go where the action is — now most often to Afghanistan — to shoot promotional stills and video.
Producing a video in southwest Minnesota was a welcome change of assignment.
“Once I realized that everything was here, I really wanted to do it all here — go into one town in America with this widely diverse group of people, all influenced by what our troops have done in vastly different ways,” he said.
With the help of family and friends, Raum located four local people who had a story relatable to the flag project.
First up was someone with whom Raum was already acquainted — Chris Schimbeno. Because of family connections, Raum had talked with her late husband, Leon, prior to his death last summer about his World War II service. Chris gladly committed to the project, although she admits she didn’t understand the scope of the endeavor.
“I thought it was just going to be a little something,” she said, “and then he came in with all the big lights and moved my furniture around. … They were here three and a half hours. I had no idea, but Eric is really good. I couldn’t have done it if it had been anybody else. He made me feel very relaxed.”
Chris’ part in the project is a tribute to Leon, a Navy veteran, who she calls “the most patriotic man I’ve ever known” in the video.
“When Leon was in the service, he and his buddy, Bob Smith, when they’d get back into port, the first thing they’d do is go to the USO,” she elaborated. “The USO always had cookies and coffee for them, and I remember him talking about Bob Hope and The Andrews Sisters. … I knew how much my husband had appreciated the USO and the performers who had come to entertain them.”
The project resonated with the entire Schimbeno family. Daughter Terry Johnson, vice principal at Coon Rapids High School, shared the video with students and colleagues, soliciting more than 200 signatures on the flag.
Martha Fonseca also didn’t know what to expect when she was asked to participate in the video. An internal sales representative at Bedford Industries in Worthington, Fonseca was filmed with her husband, Javier Garcia, and two daughters, Martha, 3, and Jenesis, 2 months.
“I thought it would be a nice experience, and I’m always up for that kind of new experience,” explained Fonseca.
Once again, Raum spent several hours with the young family, making them feel natural in front of the camera to evoke the feeling he envisioned.
“My top priority was getting people comfortable, working through a lot of nerves,” he said. “I love the authenticity. It shined right through them — the honesty and authenticity in their voices, not just giving you lip service, and the impact on their lives.”
The other subjects in the video are Russell Rickers, who served in the local National Guard unit in the early 1950s, and Johnte Dawson, a student at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
“I had this picture in my mind of a young man playing basketball,” explained Raum about recruiting Dawson as the final piece to the video. “I called him up … and I guess he thought I was playing a joke on him.”
Initially, Dawson didn’t show up for their meeting, and an acquaintance offered to roust him out of bed.
“This was the day before I had to leave,” Raum explained. “It was pouring rain, so the outdoor basketball court thing is not going to work.”
But Raum found a new locale in the gym at First Baptist Church, and Dawson came through with exactly what Raum had envisioned.
“I showed him the previous interviews that I’d already done, and he said, ‘I know exactly what I want to say,’ and he basically said, almost word for word, what I had scripted,” Raum related.
With the necessary footage and only days to get the video up online by the May 1 target, Raum headed back to USO headquarters in Arlington, Va., to finish putting the video together. The voice-over was done by actor and dedicated USO volunteer Dennis Haysbert, best known for his roles as the president of the United States on the TV series “24” and Allstate television commercials.
“The biggest compliment to the people who are in the video was when I was working with Dennis Haysbert. I told him, ‘These aren’t actors. These are real people.’ And he said, ‘I know. I could hear it in their voices.’”
As planned, the “Signatures of Thanks” video went live on May 1. The full online version is 2 minutes and 16 seconds, and there are plans to make 60- and 30-second versions for various uses. In addition to being on the website, the video has already been shown at a movie premiere. On Memorial Day weekend, the center portion of the Every Moment Counts flag will be unfurled at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
Many of the signatures for the record-breaking attempt will be gathered through the online site, but flag panels are also being taken to selected events for people to sign in person. For instance, Raum said, one of the panels was at Vice President Joe Biden’s house last week, and others will be at select Major League Baseball games on Armed Forces Day, May 17.
“They’ve gone to our own USO centers, and some other big events,” Raum said. “There are not a lot that can get to do the actual signatures. But when it turned out that I was coming back to Worthington, I asked if I could bring a panel here.”
Area residents can put their own signatures on the flag panel by stopping from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Center for Active Living, 211 11th St. Raum will be on hand for most of the afternoon, and coffee and cookies will be served. Signatures can be digitally captured at USO moments.org.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.