Mark Hutson’s passion for service flags started with a love for antiques.
In 2012, Mark Hutson and his wife, Kristine, of Woodstock, made an unplanned stop at a farm auction somewhere near Union. Searching a barn for antiques, the two found a dust- and cobweb-covered secretary desk and, in a drawer, an unfamiliar piece of cloth. They put it back and waited.
“I knew it had a connection to military service. … We waited all day to buy the cabinet,” the U.S. Army veteran said.
What they found that day was a Blue Star service flag.
“I researched to find out the history and the history behind [the flag],” he said. “From that point on, I was on a mission … a mission to educate people about the meaning and the history of the service flag.”
Service flags date back to more than 100 years ago – World War I and subsequent wars. When decorated with blue stars, the flag indicates family members on active duty. When decorated with a gold star, it honors a family member who died in service.
Since the first discovery, the Hutsons have collected service flags of all shapes and sizes. Flags have come from pickers, donations, eBay, flea markets and, yes, more auctions.
Flags were often made of silk, linen or felt, sewn by mothers, wives or church quilting circles. Others were sold at department stores. Families hung the flags in windows. They were displayed at offices and factories to honor employees who left to fight.
Some flags are small. One in the collection is 18 feet long and 12 feet wide.
“Some of them have moth holes in them. Someone gave it to us because they want them to be preserved,” Kristine Hutson said.
Her father paid for many of the custom frames built to hold the flags. It’s his way of giving back, she said.
The Hutsons’ collection expanded past service flags and now includes almost 1,000 items. They’ve found war bond posters featuring blue and gold stars. Kristine finds pieces of sweetheart jewelry given to wives, girlfriends and mothers.
Her favorite piece is a locket.
“The door opens on the locket, and there is a picture of the man” who gave her the piece, she said.
Mark Hutson served in the U.S. Army from 1981 to 1988. Kristine’s father, Jerry Hutchison of Huntley, served in Korea. Her maternal grandfather was in World War I.
As the collection grew, Mark Hutson began giving talks to military service clubs, historical societies, nursing homes and libraries. He researches the flags as much as he can, learning who made them and for whom they were made.
That research led to a book. Published in March, “So Costly a Sacrifice” centers on the Borgstrom family of Tremonton, Utah. All five of the Borgstrom brothers enlisted. Four of the brothers – including a set of twins – were killed in action. They were the only four-Gold Star family from World War II.
The surviving brother, Boyd Borgstrom, was recalled home.
Mark Hutson said he read about the family during his research and, wanting to know more, he reached out to the chamber of commerce and historical society in the Tremonton area to ask if anyone knew the Borgstrom family.
He and Kristine drove out to do a service flag presentation there and blew a transmission in Salt Lake City. Although contacts he made in the community promised to reach out to the family, Mark did not know if any of them would show up.
But they did. There was an impromptu family reunion. They talked to Mark and brought the Hutsons to the old family farm and gravesite where the brothers were reinterred.
Mark Hutson interviewed surviving family members. His research sent him to two presidential libraries and the national military archives. A family legend that a telegram operator refused to deliver the news of another dead son to their mother was authenticated. He spoke to the daughter of the Mormon bishop who agreed to tell them himself.
He even tracked down a radio broadcast recorded with the family from 1944. A California collector had the recording and sent it to Mark via email.
Borgstrom grandchildren were able to hear their grandfather’s and great-grandparents’ voices on that recording for the first time, Mark said.
Boyd’s son wrote to Mark after the book was finished. In the email, Randy Borgstrom thanked Mark for the tireless research and memorial to his father and uncles. At the end of the letter, he wrote: “You are a Borgstrom brother to me. Welcome to the family.”
Mark, 59, and Kristine, 52, store the flag and memorabilia collection in a trailer. One day they hope to find a museum or organization that will keep it all together.
Through June 3, a selection of the flags and posters is on display at the Woodstock Public Library. There, it joins a serviceman’s uniform and World War II scrapbooks.
“For decades, the storefronts on the Square have displayed uniforms and memorabilia from veterans in Woodstock and McHenry County” around the Memorial Day holiday, said Martha Hansen, assistant director.
The Woodstock Merchants Association asked the library to participate again this year. This week, the uniform on display belongs to resident Jon Koppari, who served in the Navy from 1994 to 2005.
The Hutsons’ other passion – buying and selling antiques – keeps them on the road for many weekends. Mark Hutson is a vice president at the Chicago electrical equipment manufacturing company he began working at 34 years ago, and Kristine works in hospice care.
At antique shows, he sets up tables with his book. Veterans come up and talk to him about the collection and the Blue and Gold Star families.
Kristine said she often chats with the wives – the same people who sewed or bought service flags for their sons and daughters.
“I have talked to women who added the gold stars” to a blue star flag, she said. “The worst, the hardest stories, are of a simple flag with a blue star in the window … and then they had to sew on a gold star.”
She remembers a home they saw on a trip to Wisconsin. On one side of the street, the house had a Blue Star flag in the window. Across the street, the house had a Gold Star flag.
“For one family … he isn’t going to make it back,” she said. “My son made it home, yours didn’t – right across the street from each other.”
When Mark Hutson does his programs, they also give service flags to veterans who do not have one of their own.
“It is a thrill to present Blue Star service flags. They want to hang it in the window for ‘my son, my daughter, my wife, my husband’ who are serving,” he said.
“The Gold Star flag humbles you like no other.”