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Tacoma man the reason we stand for Star Spangled Banner

It seems as much a part of a trip to the ballpark as eating hotdogs.

But, when you hear the announcer say, "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise and remove your caps for the singing of the national anthem," do you ever wonder why you're standing?

As we discovered, you'll find the answer on an obscure plaque in the city of Tacoma.

An immigrant's tale

The plaque is in downtown Tacoma's historic district, across the street from the Pantages Theater.   It honors Rossell G. OBrien, an Irish immigrant who was born in Dublin in 1846, during the Irish potato famine.

John Keane, Honorary Consul of Ireland for the state of Washington, has written about O'Brien. Keane says, like many immigrants, O’Brien seemed intent on showing his patriotism for his new country.

“He ended up, as a 16 year old, joining an Illinois infantry in the U.S. Civil War," Keane said.  

By the end of the Civil War, O’Brien had worked his way up to Brigadier General. 

In 1870, he moved to what was then Washington Territory.  O'Brien didn’t seem to waste any time getting involved. He became clerk of the Supreme Court,  mayor of Olympia, and the first commander of the National Guard in Washington Territory.

A  veteran's legacy

But it was what he O'Brien did at the Bostwick Hotel in Tacoma on October 18, 1893 that resonates for us today.

At a meeting of the local chapter of a national Civil War Veterans group, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, O’Brien stood up and made a motion. According to Keane, it proposed that,

"People should rise and remove their hats, if they were not in the military, and stand at attention for the playing of the national anthems.”

Before that, apparently, what people did was all over the map. There weren't any rules. Some would take their hats off, others would keep them on.

The motion passed and, within two years, the custom had been adopted nationwide.  Eventually, Congress made the tradition part of official United States Code.

In January, 1973, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Resolution honoring Rossell G. O'Brien for "originating the custom of rising and standing with head uncovered during a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner."

Proof you can make a difference

So the next time you stand to hear a singer croon "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave" give a nod to Rossell G. O'Brien, a shining example that one person's actions can make a difference.

"I think it is something wonderful. He did leave his mark on society, would that we could all leave such a mark," said Keane.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.