Meet a Modern-Day Betsy Ross

Incredible Kids, People
on June 26, 2005

A “B-” on Bob Heft’s high school history project changed his life forever and ensured his place in history as the designer of America’s 50-star flag.

Heft was a 17-year-old high school student in Lancaster, Ohio (pop. 35,335), in 1958 when his history teacher, Stanley Pratt, told the class to create a visual history project. Heft, who enjoyed flags, was interested in the proposed addition of Alaska to the United States. He knew if that occurred, the nation would have to expand its 48-star flag.

“I also knew that Alaska was a primarily Democratic state, so I figured that Congress would also want to add a Republican state before the 1960 election,” Heft says, referring to the addition of Hawaii. “So, I decided to make a model of a 50-star flag for my project.”

Heft’s mother was not pleased when her son began taking apart the family’s American flag. Undeterred, he worked for 12-and-a-half hours, painstakingly cutting out white stars and placing them onto a piece of blue broadcloth—50 stars on each side—then sewing the blue field back onto the red and white stripes.

Pleased with his efforts, he presented his flag project to the class. Mr. Pratt, however, was not as impressed. “It’s got too many stars,” he pointed out, giving the flag project a “B-.” When Heft protested, the teacher challenged him: “If you don’t like the grade, get this flag accepted in Washington, and I’ll consider changing it.”

Heft did just that. He took the flag to his congressman, Walter Moeller, and asked him, “If there’s ever a contest for a new flag, would you submit this for me?”

Sure enough, Heft’s political assumptions proved true, and on July 4, 1960, he found himself in Washington, D.C., standing next to President Dwight Eisenhower, watching as his 50-star flag was raised for the first time over the U.S. Capitol building.

When he returned home with his flag, Heft sought out his former teacher, who gladly bumped up the grade to an “A.” “If he hadn’t given me that bad grade,” Heft says, “I probably would have gone home and put the flag away. The lesson is, if you believe in what you’re doing, don’t let anyone dissuade you from your dreams.”

Heft, 63, and his original 50-star flag have since traveled the world, sharing a message of patriotism. In fact, his flag has flown over all 50 state capitols, 131 American embassies, hundreds of historical sites, and the White House of every administration since Eisenhower. Although the flag is valued at more than $500,000, Heft has never considered selling it, and he expects that it will likely go to a historical museum after his death.

Nowadays, the flag rarely leaves its wood-and-glass case, but people can take a look at the blue field with the white stars that still bear the pencil marks where a young Heft sketched out his design.

Over the last 45 years, Heft estimates that he’s made more than 8,000 appearances with his original 50-star flag. During that time, he’s held a number of jobs, including high school teacher and theater manager, and he even served as a seven-term mayor of Napoleon, Ohio (pop. 9,318). Now retired and living in Saginaw, Mich., he makes 300 appearances each year, giving priority to scout groups, church groups, military events, patriotic gatherings, fraternal organizations, and school assemblies and commencements. He often speaks for free or asks organizations to only cover his travel expenses.

“I try to bring history to life and make it educational, entertaining and inspirational,” Heft says. “I especially try to spread my message to the younger generation, as I feel strongly that patriotism is needed in many of our schools.”

Larry Richardson, president of the Lansing, Mich., chapter of Junior Achievement, knows Heft from his work with the organization.

“To the kids, he urged them to follow their dreams and never give up in what they believe in,” Richardson says. “Plus, he’s sharing something unexpected. Most people never think about the fact that someone had to design the flag. People feel proud to be an American after they hear him.”