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Is it really true that the current U.S. flag was designed by a 17-year-old high school student?

Jun 01, 2015 11:31AM ● Published by Charles Reichblum

When preparations were being made in the late 1950s for Hawaii to join the Union as its 50th state, it was obvious that the nation would need a new flag. The flag, of course, has as many stars as there are states—and with Hawaii coming in, the flag would have to be updated.

For many years, the U.S. had 48 states and the 48-star flag had a nice, neat design, with six even rows of eight stars each. Then Alaska became the 49th state, and again the flag had a nice, neat design with seven rows of seven stars each. But with Hawaii becoming the 50th state, it created a problem: how could one star be added to that even design?

President Eisenhower announced a national contest inviting entries for the design of the new flag and how the 50 stars should be positioned. Stanley Pratt, a high school teacher in Lancaster, Ohio, decided to make this a class project. One of his students, 17-year-old Robert Heft, came up with a design showing nine rows of alternating lengths—six stars on the top row, five stars on the second row, six stars on the third row, five stars on the fourth row, six stars on the fifth row, five stars on the sixth row, six stars on the seventh row, five stars on the eighth row, and six stars on the ninth row. Add that up, and it equals 50 stars. 

Pratt gave Heft a B- for that design, but Heft asked his teacher that if, by any wild chance, his design was accepted, would Pratt then change his grade to an A? Perhaps laughing to himself and thinking that this high school kid’s chances of winning were near zero, Pratt agreed to give him an A if the unexpected happened.

Thousands of designs from around the country were submitted to President Eisenhower, with all kinds of ways to position the 50 stars—and you can probably guess what happened. Based on the advice of the committee that he’d formed, President Eisenhower chose Heft’s design. That original entry, along with other designs that were submitted, is on display today at the Eisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

So what happened to Robert Heft? Did he get that A? The answer is yes. His teacher kept his word and changed his grade. It turns out that Heft later became a high school teacher and then a college professor. After his teaching career, he became the mayor of Napoleon, Ohio. He died in 2009 at age 67.

Many Americans get a good feeling when they look at the U.S. flag—but imagine the special thrill that Heft got every time he looked at the flag during his adult years, showcasing his design of the stars.  

Dr. Knowledge is heard on KDKA and the CBS radio network with his “Knowledge in a Nutshell” feature, and is author of the “Knowledge in a Nutshell” book series. His website is knowledgeinanutshell.com.

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