BIGFORK — The Bigfork Rodeo was kick-started last week with a special surprise as professional skydiver and former NYPD officer Curt Kellinger dropped in on Day 1 flying a massive American flag.
"It’s always emotional when I see that," said Kellinger's wife, Tawnya Fox. "And it was just beautiful, absolutely beautiful."
And the beautiful site only occurred thanks to a conversation the 33-year skydiving veteran had last year with one of the main coordinators for the rodeo, Roy Whitford.
"I showed him a picture of the flag and the parachute, and he had a look on his face like, ‘You can do this?,’" said Kellinger with a smile. "And I’m like, ‘Yeah let’s do it next year,’ and here we are."
When it came to the actual fly-in with the flag, it was students from Swan River School that were there to pick it up and prepare it for the Star-Spangled Banner.
"I sat the kids down and told them the importance of what this flag means to me, and what it’s gonna mean to a lot of the people in the stands with sons and daughters that maybe lost their life or are serving our country and how important it is," said Kellinger. "And I said this is serious business, there’s no giggling, this is important to a lot of people."
Importance that has been more than personal to Kellinger after serving as one of the first responders on 9/11.
"I had that flag draped over 37 coffins of my coworkers after Sept.11, so it strikes me every time I see it," said an emotional Kellinger.
"And they really grasped that, and you could just see it in the hustle when they picked the flag up and set it up, they took their hats off and bowed their heads. And it made me a little emotional cause I want those kids to take that with them forever.
Emotion that wasn’t felt just that opening night, but ever since Kellinger and Fox moved from Idaho to Bigfork three years ago.
"The first year we went to the Bigfork rodeo I was in tears, almost through the whole rodeo just because it was just such small-town USA," said Fox with a reminiscent smile. "And everyone was proud to be an American, that song says it all, we love it."
As for what inspired Kellinger to fly in the flag?
"I just saw how prideful everyone was about their town, about Bigfork and how Will, the DJ, spoke about the town, and the prayer," said Kellinger. "And I said, ‘We are home, this is where we belong.’"