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Owner of Huge Flag Receives a Fitting Farewell

People: 'Ski' Demski's funeral features humor, patriotism and a plexiglass coffin to display his tattoos.

January 27, 2002|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long Beach legend Thomas "Ski" Demski, the silver-bearded owner of the world's largest American flag, was remembered at St. Anthony Church on Saturday with the humor, patriotism and spectacle that characterized his life.

The quirky pageantry began with the procession of his plexiglass casket, carrying his shirtless body to display his tattoos of flags, eagles and Santa Claus. It ended with a rousing group sing-along of "God Bless America."

At his wake a few blocks away, hundreds of mourners--an amazing range of age and class, from old Polish women of the parish to veterans, homeless people and residents of his downtown neighborhood--had enjoyed roast beef sandwiches and said farewell at his coffin.

It was mirrored so that his back tattoos could be viewed, and was placed in his flag-draped garage, where visitors sat in folding chairs and chatted over the periodic squawks of his two dozen birds upstairs.

"He was a hero not only for Long Beach but for the nation," Dave San Jose, a pallbearer and Long Beach youth group leader, said as he sat near a sign that read, "Don't touch the coffin."

Glancing over at his old friend's casket, he explained, "I'm waiting to spend a little time with him."

It was a suitable send-off for a man who lived life so large, at least the final few chapters. And he had choreographed all of it long before he died Jan. 19 at age 72, having experienced multiple bypass surgery, untreatable clogged arteries, gangrene and complications of diabetes that friends say he ignored.

Two years ago, Demski held what he called a "fake wake" at his longtime home, a converted duplex with red, white and blue awnings at 4th Street and Lime Avenue. He hired a hypnotist to help him remain still for an hour, during which he lay inside the clear coffin while friends dined on corned beef.

On Saturday, inside the Roman Catholic church, lighted mostly by stained-glass windows, Demski's funeral featured spirituals and patriotic songs and white-robed clergy conducting what they characterized as a memorial unique to Demski.

Perhaps inspired by Demski's lack of convention, Msgr. Ernest J. Gualderon carried his microphone into the first rows of pews--rare, parishioners said--and waxed sentimental about the deceased, recalling some of their Sunday night dinners at a local Chinese restaurant.

Father Richard Krekelberg noted that the Mass surprised some people.

"People said, 'Gee, Father, I didn't know Ski was Catholic.' "

The priest called Demski's devotion to his flags and country his "religion that revolved around patriotism."

Demski was not always so passionate about the flags for which he would ultimately become best known, nor did he serve in the military. He was born and raised in Nanticoke, Pa., worked as a coal miner until he was injured, and in the 1970s moved to Southern California. He worked for years in construction until a disabling back injury forced him to quit.

He found his destiny while driving along the San Diego Freeway one day more than 20 years ago.

Outside a car dealership, he gazed up at a gigantic billowing flag and, as he would recall later, "I thought, 'That looks really good. Why not try that?' "

He soon erected a 132-foot flagpole outside his home and named it The Pole, which carried twin meaning because of his Polish heritage.

The flagpole was controversial. He hoisted a giant Old Glory that irked some neighbors because the flapping flag caused a racket. He also placed the ashes of a dear friend in the pole's crowning gold eagle, even unsuccessfully asking the city to declare the pole a cemetery to allow for the vertical entombment. The city refused, but the burial somehow occurred anyway.

It is his likely resting place as well.

A perennial mayoral and City Council candidate, Demski was best known for his prized flags, one of which is the size of three football fields, weighs more than 3,000 pounds and requires hundreds of people to unfurl.

He dubbed this banner Superflag, and it draped Hoover Dam and President Bush's inauguration. Other flags in Demski's collection have been unfurled at Super Bowls. One of the most emotional displays for him came when he hung one of his flags at the site of the former World Trade Center in New York.

Sadly, he put Superflag, which cost $80,000, up for sale. He rented out his flags but usually lost money on the deals because of travel costs. Demski, a recovering alcoholic, supported himself making bumper stickers with 12-step slogans.

His best friend, Jim Alexander, a retired Coast Guard commander, met Demski during the flagpole tussles and helped him with his flag business from then on. Alexander is executor and trustee of a living trust that Demski created to support his flags, birds, home and annual St. Patrick's Day meal for the homeless.

"There will never be anybody else who will march to that drumbeat of Ski's," Alexander, dressed in kilt, knee socks and vivid blue blazer, said during the funeral. "But that beat's always in my heart."

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