A Grand New Flag
It started as a creative and innovative school project back in the late 1950s, and ended up the nation's new flag—and a truly inspiring story.
"I asked him if he would take my flag to Washington, and if there were ever a contest to determine the design for a 50-star flag, would he present mine. He was so bowled over that he agreed, probably just to get rid of me."
For the next two years, Robert waited in anticipation. In January 1959 President Eisenhower signed a proclamation announcing the admission of Alaska as the 49th state. As with all new states, the star would be added on the following July 4.
That 49-star flag—seven rows of seven stars—was almost immediately obsolete. Because in August 1959, just as Robert had expected, Hawaii became the 50th state.
He'd already graduated from high school by then, the woeful grade still in Mr. Pratt's book. Robert was working as a draftsman for an industrial firm and going to college at night. Whatever happened to my flag design? he wondered.
He'd heard that thousands of new designs had been submitted. A special commission of congressmen was screening them and choosing five for submission to President Eisenhower.
"In early June," Robert says, "I was working at my drafting board when one of the secretaries at the firm rushed over to me. 'There's a congressman on the phone for you,' she said. It was Congressman Moeller. I recognized his gravelly voice right away. 'Son, I'm proud to tell you that President Eisenhower has selected your design for our nation's new flag. Congratulations.'"
Robert flew to Washington to see his flag flown over the Capitol for the first time. Thousands of others had submitted the same design, but Robert Heft's had been the first. Moreover it wasn't just a sketch. It was an actual flag. That was a big plus.
Since then Heft's original handmade version has traveled; it's flown over every state capital building and 88 embassies, and it is the only flag in American history to have flown over the White House under five administrations. It even has a patch on it from a bullet hole it caught in Saigon in 1967.
At the end of our talk I had one last question. "What about your grade?"
"The day I returned from Washington, Mr. Pratt changed it. But you know," Robert mused, "if I hadn't gotten that bad grade in the first place I wouldn't have given the flag to Congressman Moeller. And if I hadn't done that, I never would have gone to Washington..."
For more than 40 years, longer than any other, his design has been the one we know. "But I've got a good design for fifty-one," he said, "in case we add another."
It's good to be reminded that Old Glory is a work-in-progress. Always has been, I guess. From the 13 original Stars and Stripes to the star-spangled banner of today, long may it wave.