What started as a creative school project back in the late 1950s for 17-year-old Robert G. Heft ended up the nation's new flag—and a truly inspiring story.
Jan 31, 2011
I've always been interested in the flag. I pledged allegiance to it as a schoolboy. I fought for it in Europe during World War II, and it was here to welcome us soldiers on our return home.
The Stars and Stripes had 48 stars for the 48 states back then. But in the late fifties, things changed. Two new states were joining the union. How would the new flag accommodate them?
Well, not too long ago while researching a book on the flag, I read about the man who came up with the 50-star design. In fact, he was not even an adult at the time. He was just a 17-year-old high school kid in Lancaster, Ohio. I gave him a call to hear his remarkable story.
On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1958, Robert G. Heft was riding the bus home from school. He was thinking about the assignment his history teacher, Mr. Pratt, had given the class—a project that demonstrated their interest in history. Something visual. Something original. By Monday.
As Robert rode through downtown Lancaster, he saw the flag on top of city hall. "That's what convinced me," he told me. "I would design a new flag."
Alaska was likely to soon become the 49th state. "But I knew that Alaska was heavily Democrat," he says. "The Senate would have to approve the addition, and it was dominated by Republicans at the time. Everyone was saying that they would be adding another state to balance it out."
He had a hunch that then-Republican Hawaii would soon become the 50th state.
At home that night he sketched out a grid for 50 stars. "I couldn't just throw them in anywhere." So he came up with a design. Five rows of six stars with four alternating rows of five stars.
That next morning he took the family's three by five flag out of the closet, sat down with scissors on the living room floor and cut out the blue and white-starred corner.
"What did your parents do?" I couldn't help asking.
"My mom was horrified. She hollered at me for desecrating the flag. I insisted it was for a school project, and I'd make sure it looked okay."
He biked downtown to Wiseman's Department Store and bought a new piece of blue cotton broadcloth. He also got some iron-on mending tape. "The kind my mom used for patches."
With a cardboard pattern he traced 100 stars on the tape and cut them out. One hundred so he'd have a star for each side of the blue fabric.
"I wanted to get Mom to sew the new background to the old flag," Robert says, "but she wouldn't have anything to do with it. I got out her old foot-operated Singer. I was amazed I could actually work the thing." He sewed on the blue background and ironed on the stars. Project done.
"You must have gotten an A," I said.
Robert chuckled on the phone. "Not on your life," he said. "My teacher, Mr. Pratt, was a taskmaster. He looked at what I'd done and said it wasn't the real flag. Not with 50 stars. I explained my reasoning, and he still just barely gave me a passing grade. I was peeved!"
"What did you do?"
"For the first time I really spoke out. I told him I deserved better. I had a friend who'd done a collage of leaves and got an A. What I'd done showed a lot more imagination. Mr. Pratt looked at me coolly and declared, 'If you don't like the grade, go get the flag accepted in Washington!'"
And that's exactly what Robert Heft set out to do. He bicycled over to the home of his congressman, Walter Moeller, knocked on the door, gave him the flag and explained what it was for.
"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.
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