Barn art a hopeful sign

When a Douglas County barn was damaged by a 2019 tornado, a passerby volunteered to help repair a side where the word 'Unbreakable' was missing two critical letters



October 21, 2021 - 9:42 AM

Joe Skeeba and Chris Koenig stand in front of the restored “Unbreakable” barn painting in rural Douglas County. PHOTO BY LESLIE REYNARD

Our century-old pink barn sits in an unfortunate trajectory on a treacherous curve on Old U.S. 59 Highway in rural Douglas County, just south of Lawrence. More than once, an over-served driver has topped the hill and launched their vehicle through the south side of the building. Whenever this happened my husband, Joe Skeeba, had to rebuild a large section of the impact wall, leaving an obvious repair.

This was the case in mid-September 2001. A neighbor who was helping with the construction suggested that Joe, an artist, paint a flag over the scarred area. We agreed and added the word “UNBREAKABLE” above it, to honor those affected by the 9/11 tragedies that had just occurred.

Over the next two decades, what used to be called “the pink barn” came to be a destination  known as “the Flag Barn.”

Families have driven here to take annual pictures in front of its flag; at least one bridal party commemorated a wedding with a photo shoot there; someone sent us a copy of a magazine with the Flag Barn on the cover; and a friend texted me from a Topeka grocery store to show me our barn tastefully matted in a nice wooden frame, decorating the wall of its coffee shop.

Over the years, the colors faded, but the flag was still there.

In May 2019 when a massive F4 tornado tore through Douglas County, the winds at its edge took some branches from our redwood trees and blew the “U-N” from the word over the image. If you passed our barn on Old U.S. 59 Highway, you would see a decaying structure with a faded painting of Old Glory on its side with “… BREAKABLE” written in blue letters.

Joe recently got a call from Chris Koenig, a young man who had first seen our barn 20 years ago, when he was driving back home from college shortly after the events of 9/11. He recalled what an impact seeing it had on him. He told Joe the attacks on our country had put him into deep distress, and he was having difficulty dealing with the reality of what had happened.

“But then I saw that flag and UNBREAKABLE … And it helped me,” he said. Chris asked if he could repaint and repair it in time to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks.

The irony of nature’s relatively gentle reminder in that 2019 storm that everything can break is not lost on us. Democracies certainly can be broken and communities can be turned to serve other masters.

Chris devoted his free time and his own resources to completing the repair, with Joe re-creating the word as it originally appeared. On the morning of Sept. 11 — at about the same time the planes hit the World Trade Center that morning in 2001 — they mounted  UNBREAKABLE in its place above the flag.

It’s been a difficult two decades in America and elsewhere. Yet, certain truths remain self-evident to those for whom democratic ideals are their “rules of the road” and not just part of boring junior high civics lessons.

The irony of nature’s relatively gentle reminder in that 2019 storm that everything can break is not lost on us. Democracies certainly can be broken and communities can be turned to serve other masters.

Joe Skeeba and Chris Koenig work on the side of the barn, bringing back both flag and word to their former vibrancy. (Leslie Reynard for The Kansas Reflector)

Good democracy is enacted daily as the collective expression of shared values. Institutions increasingly appear to lack mechanisms for caring and nurturing, so providing care and concern for neighbors, local and global, is the right and responsibility of individuals. Democracies arise from the deeds of people like Chris who express their idealism through small, practical acts and through teachings of the type provided by families who drive out to our barn to record their children’s growth against the background of a rustic, hand-painted American flag.

Our hopes coincide there.

We dedicate the sentiments on the wall of this old barn to anyone passing by who needs a bit of hope. We commemorate all that was lost 20 years ago. We send our respect, thoughts, love and prayers to all who were impacted by those events as well as those suffering today in a world that seems to have become permanently saddened on Sept. 11, 2001.

About the author: Leslie J. Reynard, Ph.D., is an independent scholar, consultant and managing director of the Kansas-based Center for Applied Communication Research. Previously, she served on the faculties of Indiana University, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Washburn University and the University of Kansas.