Bob Heft & the 50-Star U.S. Flag


The inspirational story of one high school student who simply set out to  complete a U.S. History class project by redesigning our country's flag, but, instead, became its own history-making event.

By Rodney C. Wakeman © 2016 (Revised).  All Rights Reserved.

If you reflect back to your elementary school years, somewhere between being told to stop running in the halls and declaring yourself king of the playground equipment during recess, you may remember discussions of the American Revolution in History class, which included the war with the English, the 13 Colonies and President George Washington. Your teacher also likely talked about the original Stars and Stripes and, ultimately, Betsy Ross.

While the story of Betsy Ross helps put a face on the original banner representing the birth of America and its freedoms, today’s version of the Stars and Stripes has its own story and its own face.

Today's flag was not fashioned by the hands of Betsy but rather, Bob.



Bob G. Heft is credited for designing our current 50-star flag, and the circumstances in which it came to be selected is one of those great American stories.




The journey begins

Robert (Bob) G. Heft was born on January 19, 1942, in Saginaw, Michigan. He was moved to Lancaster, Ohio at about the age of one. Heft was raised there by his grandparents, yet always referred to them as his parents.

Heft's incredible flag journey begins one Friday afternoon in the spring of 1958 while a 17-year-old junior at Lancaster High School (above, right). Heft and his fellow classmates were given an assignment by U.S. History teacher Stanley Pratt to prepare a history project of choice and report on it in class. On Monday.

Heft had an interest in the Betsy Ross story and learned respect for the flag through his service in Boy Scouts. A flag project an honorable and innocent task by most standards seemed to be a natural choice for him. The idea of making a flag came to Heft at the time after seeing the flag flying at city hall.

Perhaps out of convenience, Bob selected the closest flag he could get his hands on from which to recreate his new banner the 48-star flag of his parents. Now, to most, this may still be reasonable use of material. After all, it was for a school project. But the flag he would use as his model, albeit free to him, was, in fact, a gift to his parents for their wedding day!

This was not enough of a deterrent, however, to force Bob to consider a different flag to use as his model.

While Heft's mother understood what he was making for his project, he refused to involve her figuring she might label it desecration of the flag. Desecration aside, her lack of help quickly became more of a practical problem for Heft as he had never sewn anything in his life. So, before Heft could begin to deconstruct and reconstruct the flag, he had to first teach himself how to sew with his mother's foot pump Singer sewing machine.

Heft cut into the family flag with scissors, and with an additional $2.87 of new cloth and iron-on material he purchased from Wiseman's Department Store, he then spent 12-½ hours over the course of the entire weekend at the family's dining table constructing a new 50-star version of ‘Old Glory’ using a pattern of five rows of six stars with four alternating rows of five stars.

Even as a teen-aged high school student, Heft had a liking for politics and was in-tune with current affairs, which included national discussions of Democrat-leaning Alaska becoming the 49th state. But Bob’s political thinking, already seemingly beyond most kids his age, and likely many adults, pointed him to surmise that a Republican president would not support Alaska without equalizing political power and adding Republican-leaning Hawaii as the 50th state, which demonstrated his forward-thinking and reasoning behind a 50-star design.

The following Monday, he was prepared to turn in his project to Pratt.

While aboard the school bus, and with his newly fashioned flag in hand, Bob learned that another student, who Bob identified simply as 'Tim,' had started his project just that morning made of five tree leaves taped to notebook paper while waiting at the bus stop.

In class, the students began to hand in their projects. Despite his apparent lack of planning and effort, Tim’s leaf project earned him a grade of A from teacher Pratt.

Confident about his 12-½ hours in thought, planning, and work throughout the weekend, and knowing that a leaf project that was started and completed earlier that morning secured a grade of A, Heft confidently handed over his flag.

Heft said Pratt asked him, '"What's this on my desk?"'

Heft replied that it was a flag.

Pratt pointed out to Heft that he had too many stars on the flag. "'You don't even know how many states we have,"' Heft recollected Pratt's response.

Bob explained how he took his family's flag and remade it with a total of 100 stars, 50 on each side, how he had to use his mother's sewing machine, the materials used, Alaska and Hawaii all of the details.

Pratt, however, wasn't as impressed as perhaps Heft had hoped.

'"It lacked originality,"' Heft reiterated Pratt's explanation. '"Anyone can make a flag."'

Pratt gave the young flag designer a grade of B-minus.

Despite receiving a 'decent grade,' as Heft would later describe in speeches, he remained upset as he felt his grade did not match the effort he put into it considering Tim and his level of effort.

Pratt then presented young Bob with a challenge to have his flag submitted to Congress and if they accept his 50-star flag design he would consider changing the grade.

Determined to prove that Pratt gave him a wrong grade, Heft accepted Pratt's offer and set out to get his design approved.

Heft would make contact with the new Congressman of Ohio's 10th District, Representative Walter H. Moeller, to inform him of his 50-star design. He eventually sent the flag to Representative Moeller with a note that in the event both Alaska and Hawaii become states that the Congressman submit the 50-star design on his behalf.

Over time, Heft would make numerous phone calls to Representative Moeller's office, as well as 21 letters and 18 phone calls to the White House to check on the status of his flag submission.

Eventually, Congress approved and the states ratified, Alaska, which officially became a state on January 3, 1959, and was acknowledged on a new 49-star flag at a flag-raising ceremony at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, MD on July 4, 1959.

The 49-star flag, however, would be short-lived the shortest in U.S. history at only one year.

While Hawaii also earned statehood in 1959, it did not occur until later in the year, August 21, after the 49-star flag had already been adopted.

However, in the end, Heft's prediction had come true.


'Dwight, are you still there?'


On only the eleventh day at his new job for a company that Heft said had a government contract, he received a page over the company P.A. system requiring him to report to the office to take a phone call. Heft understood workers were to have no personal phone calls while on the job. When he arrived to the office he inquired who was calling for him. His boss explained, apparently with noted concern, that it was the White House and wondered what Bob had done to warrant a call from Washington, D.C.

Young Heft took the phone and on the other end was President Eisenhower’s personal secretary informing Heft to hold the line for the president.

The next sound Heft heard on the phone was the voice of President Dwight Eisenhower.

Heft said President Eisenhower asked, '"Am I speaking to Robert G. Heft?"'

"Yes, sir," Heft responded, "But you can just call me Bob."

The president asked Bob if he remembers making a 50-star flag and submitting it to Congress.

Now, after 12-½ hours at the family dining table using his mother’s sewing machine to sew the flag, the many phone calls and letters to Washington, D.C., and the B-minus grade he received from his teacher the whole reason behind getting his flag design to Washington Bob was very much aware of his flag. However, he tempered his excitement while on the phone with the president by simply noting that he “recalled something about it.”

President Eisenhower told Bob that his design was selected as the new U.S. flag and asked if he would be available to come to Washington, D.C. and stay at the White House to take part in a ceremony on July 4, 1960, to watch his 50-star flag be raised as the new official flag of the United States.

Bob explained to President Eisenhower that he had only been on the job for a short while and had not acquired any vacation time and needed to ask his boss permission for the time off.

Then with a single push of a button on the phone Bob put the president of the United States on hold.

Heft explained his situation to his boss and acknowledged that he didn't have any vacation time built up.

Perhaps with thoughts of his company's government contract somehow being compromised because of this young flag-making hire, his boss quickly said he could go to Washington, D.C. and that he would put his time off as ‘executive leave.’ His boss instructed him to immediately get the president back on the line.

Heft reconnected the line with the president. Then in an informal fashion he uttered, “Dwight, are you still there?"

He informed the president that he would, indeed, be coming to Washington, D.C.

Reportedly, Eisenhower selected Heft's flag out of 1,500 designs that had been submitted for consideration via Executive Order No. 10834, signed on Aug. 21, 1959.

It would later be revealed that all of the plans submitted to Washington, D.C. were line drawings on paper accept one.  Heft's design was the only one represented as an actual flag rendering.


Heft's life after designing the flag


The years after his design was selected, Heft worked as a high school teacher, a college professor and was mayor of Napoleon, Ohio for 28 years. However, Bob spent much of his adult life traveling around the United States and the world to over 200 events each year telling his unique story of how he came to be the designer of the current flag. In his travels, Heft had the opportunity to meet nine presidents, visited the White House 14 times, flew on Air Force One multiple times and toured with Bob Hope. He shook hands with many government officials, dignitaries, movie stars and other notable figures. His engagements often involved veteran groups, corporate and municipal functions, Fourth of July and other patriotic events and parades. But to Heft, none of the meetings were as important as the everyday people he met crisscrossing the United States, especially veterans groups and schoolchildren.

With Heft's ambitious travel and speaking schedule over the years, he traveled several million miles telling others of his unique story. His original flag had been at his side for nearly all of his trips. The frequency the flag has been exposed to light and the outdoor elements, including being flown over the White House, over all 50 state Capitols, and over 121 American embassies, where it bears a scar in the form of an uneven repair patch after surviving an attack on the American embassy in Saigon in 1967, Heft was forced to limit the times he would take the original flag out on the road with him.

After retiring from Northwest State Community College in Archbold, Ohio, Heft returned to his birth town of Saginaw, Michigan in 1998 where he maintained his robust travel and speaking schedule.

Over the years, Heft received many accolades and recognitions for designing the flag. He was recognized as Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame of Lancaster High School; in 2003, the Ohio Historical Society commissioned a historical marker to be placed at Lancaster High School to commemorate Heft making the flag in 1958 while a junior at the school; In 2005, Ripley's Believe It or Not! featured Bob and his flag story (at right).



On December 25, 2006, Bob was featured as a topic on the television game show Jeopardy, as seen at left, (click here to see video).



July 4, 2007


Americans understand the significance of the July 4th celebrations every year. Aside from a day off of work for many people, the B-B-Q cookouts in countless back yards, and spectacular fireworks displays across our great land at night, this particular date in our country's history is more than the 231st anniversary of our country's founding.

This date represents the day in which Bob's 50-star flag design became the longest serving version of the flag in our country's history, surpassing the 48-star design, and to Bob, it was one of his proudest moments as an American.

At 12:00 Noon on this date, yet another history-making event for Bob took place at Michigan’s Own Military and Space Museum (scroll down on linked page to view photo) in Frankenmuth, Michigan, just 30 minutes from his Saginaw County home. Officials from the museum and nearby Bronner's Christmas Wonderland led a flag-raising ceremony in Heft's honor to commemorate the historical moment.

When Bob set out to redesign the flag, he never imagined that his flag would be selected by President Eisenhower. Even more unsuspecting to him is that his design would become the new standard for longevity.

In a 2007 interview with Michigan-based Grand Rapids Press newspaper, Heft spoke about the time he made the flag and what it means now as it became the longest-serving flag in our country's history.

"I never thought when I designed the flag that it would outlast the 48-star flag," said Heft. "I think of all the things it stood for in the past, the things we've done as a nation that we're proud of. It's not a perfect country, but where else would I like to live?"


On Tuesday, July 17, 2007, Heft was honored in both chambers of the Michigan Legislature with acknowledgements by Senator for the 32nd District Roger Kahn and Representative for the 93rd District John Moolenaar who presented Heft with a Special Tribute in honor of Heft's design becoming the longest-serving U.S. flag design in our country's history.

At right, Heft is pictured meeting privately with Senator Roger Kahn in his Senate office for the formal presentation of the Special Tribute.


Heft speaks to his final audience


Due to the millions of miles Heft's original flag had traveled with him for speeches and the times it had flown in key locations around the world over the years, Heft determined it was better to leave his prized possession home more often when traveling for speeches to help preserve its condition. 

However, Heft had his original flag with him while on a road trip in Kentucky on December 4, 2009. Heft was on a run of campaign stops with Kentucky Republican U.S. Senate primary candidate Bill Johnson. Heft, Johnson and the rest of the group were en route to another speaking engagement that evening when they noticed a packed parking lot at Clay City Elementary School in Clay City, KY. They decided to make an unscheduled stop at the school.

The school was holding its annual Winterfest event.

Just as the music portion of the event was concluding, Heft requested permission from school officials to speak to the kids about his story.

As he had done many times before, Heft spoke to the schoolchildren, his favorite audience, of how he made the best of the opportunity he was given. Heft concluded the impromptu visit, as he usually did with an audience of kids, by having them recite the Pledge of Allegiance with him.

No one could have known that this would be Heft's final presentation in a school, and later in that same trip, the final time in front of Television cameras for a WKYT TV interview, as it would be just days later Heft would unexpectedly pass away, making these final events even more poignant for those involved.

The Saginaw, Michigan native who designed our U.S. flag for a history class project at an Ohio high school, passed away on December 12, 2009, at a Saginaw hospital. He was 67.

Even up until the week before his death, Bob was educating others about our country’s history and teaching patriotism to children.

Designer of America's 50-star flag laid to rest

"...American icon, and the true face of freedom. Bob’s work is an inspiration to our students that each morning recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America."  -- U.S. Representative Dave Camp (Midland, MI) on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, December 16, 2009.

The funeral for Bob Heft took place on Thursday, December 17, 2009. Despite that Heft was never in the armed services, members of the military and the Michigan Patriot Guard Riders attended his funeral to recognize his patriotism and place in American history.

Heft is buried at Holy Cross Lutheran Cemetery in Saginaw Township, Saginaw County, Michigan, where his grave is marked with a granite monument designed as a replica of his own 50-star flag, featuring polished India Red granite with a Blue Pearl insert.

Several people and groups commented on Bob's passing, including Bill Johnson, the man Bob spent time with campaigning in Kentucky, and the Michigan Legislature honored Heft posthumously for his patriotism and life's work.

On July 1, 2010, U.S. Representative Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, while on the House floor, spoke on Our American Flag, its history, and formally acknowledged Heft's design milestone.

Heft made the most of an opportunity early in life. Despite his unique place in U.S. history that included a life of world travel, he never looked at life through the tainted prism of fame. Bob was genuine. He never thought of himself as ‘Mr. Heft the flag guy.’ If you ever had the pleasure of meeting him, he would have likely told you, “Just call me Bob.”


Heft's original flag today


Bob talked about if he was ever in a position to sell his original flag, he wanted to start an educational fund. In an effort to make this a reality, Bob listed the flag on the Internet auction site Ebay in 2005. Bob had the flag listed for $250,000. While news of the listing helped produce a lot of views on the site, it was never sold and remained in Bob's possession until his death.

Since his death, Bob's original flag has been held with a fiduciary for safe keeping.

The final grade


As for his B-minus grade given to him by his teacher, Pratt, when Bob returned home from Washington, D.C. following the flag-raising ceremony, he immediately headed to Lancaster High School to inform his former history teacher that his flag design is the official flag of the United States.

Heft said Pratt kept his word saying, '"If it's good enough for Washington, then it's good enough for me. I hereby change the grade to an A."'


Heft honored in cartoonist's rendering

In 2014, Adrian Teal, of Teal Cartoons, a caricaturist from Northamptionshire, England, produced "The Great Seal" for ArtPrize, an international art competition held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The 8.5' x 6' painting (above) pays homage to America's Revolution and features iconic symbols and people of the era. Teal included Bob Heft as the designer of America's 50-star U.S. flag. Placed at center-right in the painting, Heft is seen sharing a flag design moment with America's first president George Washington. Washington's family ancestral home, Sulgrave Manor, appearing in the painting behind Washington, is located in Teal's hometown. The Washington family coat of arms is thought to have inspired the original Stars and Stripes.

Depicted at the bottom right is Betsy Ross stitching the motto E Pluribus Unum.

Watch the artist himself explain the art piece and why he felt Bob was important enough to include in the artwork.

"Adrian describing his Art Prize Entry" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfOgdtYRJrQ

"Adrian Teal on Robert G. Heft" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNG4uSkjqvY


In conclusion


Befitting to Bob, as he had done at the conclusion of many of his presentations, with hands to our hearts, we recite:

The Pledge of Allegiance

"I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America,
and to the republic for which it stands,
one nation under God, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all
."



Recordings of Bob Heft


Click on the following links to hear the voice of Bob Heft immortalized in an audio recording giving a brief explanation of his flag story and a video of segments of an interview he gave at his Saginaw County, Michigan home.



About the author


Rodney Wakeman is co-owner and director of Wakeman Funeral Home, Inc. in Saginaw, Michigan. Wakeman first met Bob Heft back in the early 1990s when Heft drove from Ohio to Saginaw to pay respects to another family Wakeman was serving at the time.

The next meeting between the two occurred one Wednesday afternoon in late 1998 at a weekly luncheon of the Saginaw Downtown Lions Club, of which Wakeman served as past president. He immediately noticed Heft seated at a table in the room. It was revealed at that meeting that Heft had recently retired and would be moving to his birth home of Saginaw, and in the process would be transferring his Lions Club membership to the local club, which officially took place in 1999.

As was the situation with so many people that came to know Heft, both in and out of the Lions Club, Wakeman became a close friend and attended and participated in several flag events with him.

As the years passed, Heft spoke to Wakeman on several occasions regarding his wishes for his future funeral service. It was from these blueprint conversations that Wakeman solemnly led the funeral service of his friend and designer of our 50-star flag.


Credits


Bob Heft & the 50-Star Flag article © 2015 (Revised) Rodney C. Wakeman.  All Rights Reserved.
Bob Heft school photo © Lancaster High School, 1959 Mirage.  All Rights Reserved.
Jeopardy Television Game Show © 2006 Jeopardy Productions, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Special Tribute Presentation © 2007 Rodney C. Wakeman.  All Rights Reserved.
Heft monument © 2010 Rodney C. Wakeman.  All Rights Reserved.
'The Great Seal' © 2014 Adrian Teal.  All Rights Reserved.


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