Flag#039;s story unique, personal

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Robert Heft was a junior in high school. His teacher assigned members of his class to choose a project of any sort to show their creative skills.

Heft redesigned the American flag. The year was 1958 and while the flag had 48 stars - one for each state — there was talk about adding either Hawaii or Alaska to the United States. Rather than create a new flag with 49 stars, Heft decided on 50, explaining to the teacher seven rows of seven stars was no challenge.

He opted to alternate five rows of six stars and four rows of five stars, then proudly submitted his project.

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The teacher was not impressed, giving Heft a B-minus before adding, perhaps flippantly, he would change the grade if Congress were to adopt his flag.

Heft contacted his congressman, who set into motion consideration of the newly altered flag should it one day be necessary. When both territories were admitted to statehood in 1959, the Heft version of the flag was accepted, flying first as a symbol of our country on July 4, 1960.

And, true to his word, the teacher changed the grade, raising it from a B-minus to an A.

That flag continues to represent the United States today. It is the one we will honor Thursday on National Flag Day. It is the one that - on this July 5 - will have flown continuously for more time than any of its 26 predecessors. And it is the one passionately held sacred by retired Col. Earl Tisdale, one of Greenville's most patriotic citizens and a noted authority on the flag, its customs and its precious heritage.

For the past 50 weeks, Col. Tisdale, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Army (Infantry, Airborne), entered the Pacific Theatre in World War II, was a military attach\u00E9 in the Korean Conflict, saw two tours of combat in Vietnam and to this day misses Army life, has shared deeply researched and enlightening details about the flag's heritage with fortunate members of the Greenville Rotary Club, mixing delightful personal anecdotes with each presentation.

He told of the remarkable first flag, the foresight and vision of those who saw need for a symbol of our country, our democracy, our way of life.

He talked about Betsy Ross, touted by most historians as the woman who sewed that initial flag, but admitted that while she said she did it, while she was a seamstress, while she was a niece of a committee member who drew the design and while it makes logical sense she did the work, there is no written document that confirms the authenticity of that effort.

He told of Admiral Matthew Perry's first visit to Tokyo in 1851 under a flag with 32 stars to deliver a message from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan, encouraging the Japanese leader to take his country out of isolation and into world trade. That flag was later preserved in a museum on the Naval Academy campus in Annapolis, Md. It flew again — nearly 100 years later - on the Battleship Missouri when Japan surrendered to end World War II.

He shared a personal story of a dinner he was having with three Air Force officers in Oslo, Norway. Noting all were Americans, the owner served them a large cake for dessert. In the middle, there was a box that resembled a music box with a skinny pole coming out of it.

When the owner struck a match to ignite a tiny fuse, the top of the box popped opened, an American flag climbed the pole to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner. Not only did he and the officers arise, so did others in the restaurant and when the anthem ended, all applauded.

He talked about the 26 changes made since that original 13-star flag was created, noting five stars were added twice, two stars twice and single stars on other occasions.

He explained Florida condominium law restricts the display of all materials - except the American flag — on balconies. He noted the lengthy code that recommends flag protocol, without, perhaps unfortunately, penalties for violation. He reminded that &#8220new” flags fly first on the Fourth of July after statehood admission.

And he acknowledged the same Mr. Heft has designed a 51-star flag should an American territory like Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa or islands in the Pacific be added as states.

Week in and week out, the 87-year-old colonel, who was once city manager at Auburn, has held spellbound men and women who now eagerly await his words that inform and personify the flag, our flag.

He will do that again tomorrow, using expanded time on a special day to tell us more about a piece of cloth whose significance and distinction borders on the extraordinary.

He will likely remind those who hear him to remove their headgear, to halt their walk, to end their conversation, to stand erect, to cover their heart with a hand or a hat and to listen carefully to the words as they pledge allegiance to the flag that stands for so much.

Words like respect, strength, honor, pride, reverence and dignity will flow freely.

Col. Earl Tisdale will see to that. It's a message he delivers without peer, a love story he shares with feeling, an affection he hopes can be renewed and will touch those who should be grateful.

Ed Darling is president and publisher of Greenville Newspapers LLC. He can be reached at 382-3111 or ed.darling@greenvilleadvocate.com.