By G. Romero Wendorf

SAN JUAN – If you drove into San Juan earlier this month, it was hard not to notice the huge American flag flying high above Liberty Park along Business 83. Atop a pole that measures 160 feet, it’s hard to miss.

The flags very existence can be credited to local businessman Jim Shawn. He was born and raised in San Juan and graduated in the early 1950s from the old PSJA high school that sits along the highway. For kicks, he rode a motorcycle and flew a plane as a teenager, while learning the tricks of the mechanical trade from his dad, James R. Shawn, who owned a truck service garage, which was located just west of the old Cactus Theater, where the old Walmart strip mall now stands. The family house sat just behind the service garage.

Neither Shawn or his dad ever served in the military, but his parents instilled in him love and respect for those veterans who did serve, so many of whom (an inordinate number from the Valley) gave up their lives while Shawn was still only six years old when WWII broke out in 1941.

Throughout the intervening years, during his 53-year marriage to his wife Blanca Ramirez Shawn, and the successful business he’s built, Mobile Crane, with the help of his brother-in-law and partner, Edward Ramirez, Shawn has kept up with his support of the military.

Side note: Blanca was PSJA homecoming queen of ’54. As expected, she caught the eye of every guy around. But Shawn, or “Jimmy” as he was known back then, had something up his sleeve to outwit the competition: namely, the ability to flya plane, courtesy of his aviator dad’s love of aviation. So to increase his chances of wooing the local beauty (Blanca’s nickname was Elizabeth Taylor, thanks to her stunning resemblance to the fil legend), not only did Shawn deliver her love notes from the ground, but dropped them to her by parachutes from the air as well. What woman could resist that?

“That’s a whole other story,” Shawn says. “I was flying around solo, building up time to get my ticket, and Blanca was working the cotton fields up near Karnes City, so I’d fly over and drop her love notes.”

He can’t help but laugh at the fond memories, despite the passage of so many years.

Today, Jim Shawn’s still a kid at heart, despite that sadness that filledhis soul with his wife’s passing four years ago. He still flies planes, with that unlit cigar hanging from his lips, while telling age to take a hike. Just bought himself a souped-up Mustang and still works full-time at Mobile Crane alongside his brother-in-law and best friend, Ed Ramirez, that dates back more than 60 years. Still wakes up at 4:30 every morning.

“I look at people who retire, and not all of them seem so happy,” he says. “So I think I’ll just keep working.”

In the end, though, it may well be Liberty Park in downtown San Juan that may serve as Shawn’s lasting legacy to this area. He owns the land now on which it sits, but says he will eventually donate Liberty Park to the city. The site on which it now stands was where an old gas station used to pump fuel. But when a car crashed into it in the 1990s, tearing down part of the awnings, the owners wanted to sell, and Shawn bought it.

His idea was to create a park – later named Liberty – that would serve as a lasting memorial to America’s military veterans. Today, it has five flags atop 70-foot poles. One each for the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. Plus it has a sixth flag devoted to America’s POWs (and MIAs).

On special occasions, he rolls out the monster flag,the one that sits atop the 160-foot pole. The tallest flagpole in Texas, by Shawn’s reckoning, except for the one in Laredo that stands over 200 feet tall.

“When we first opened Liberty Park in 2004,” Shawn says, “we kept the big flag, which measure 25 x 40 feet, flying daily. But with the wind down here, they got torn up too fast.”

So in recent years, the six smaller flags still fly daily, but the tall one only gets rolled out on 10 occasions per year: Flag Day, July 4th, Memorial Day, Sept. 11, Veteran’s Day, Feb. 3 (President’s Day), May 4 (National Firefighters Memorial Day), May 15 (Peace Officer Memorial Day), Armed Forces Day in May, and Pearl Harbor Day (Dec. 7).

The big flagis made in Wimberly, Texas, and costs an average of between $1,500 and $1,800. Shawn has a local tailor, of sorts, who works to keep them patched up before they’re fully retired after a year or two.

“I couldn’t have done all of this without the city’s help,” says Shawn. “They bought the adjacent property (which serves as a parking lot for the park), and really, everybody connected with the city deserves a lot of thanks for making all of this happen.”

Shawn says the basic message he tries to convey is to remember America’s veterans daily.

“Which is why we keep those six flags flying every day,” he says.

But on those 10 special occasions per year – the big 25 x 40-foot flaggets raised atop that 160-foot pole, and if you drive into San Juan, it’s impossible to miss. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it.

“Actually,” Shawn says, “the decision not to fly the big fla every day has paid off. You fly it every day, people get used to seeing it, and it loses some of its effect. But now when that big flag flieson those special occasions, and we fly it about four days before each of those 10 days, people really take notice of it.”

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