Saturday, September 6, 2008

Eight Stars on a Field of Blue

A week from now we will be leaving for our annual conference which this year will be on the Celebrity Mercury for an 8 night Alaska Cruise (and yes, I will do a daily posting from the ship during the trip as I did on the trip across the Atlantic and through the Med earlier this year).

Did you know that it is coming up on the 50th Anniversary of Alaska becoming a state (Jan 3, 1959-2009). In the Fall issue of Mariner Magazine from Holland America Line that I received a couple of days ago, there was a very interesting story about the design and creation of the Alaska State flag.

I requested permission from Holland America Line to share this article with you since you may not be a HAL Mariner (past passenger) as we are and would therefore not get this magazine. They graciously allowed me to put this out on my blog.

On behalf of all the visitors to this posting in particular, thank you Holland America Line for allowing me to share this story. The title is Eight Stars in a Field of Blue.

John Bell “Benny” Benson didn’t have a very auspicious start in life. Born in the tiny Aleutian hamlet of Chignik, Alaska, in 1913, he was only three when the family home burned down. Soon after, his Aleut-Russian mother died of pneumonia, and with few alternatives, his Swedish fisherman father sent Benny and his brother to an orphanage/school In Unalaska.

Benny was instructed in the usual school subjects, but as was common at the Jesse Lee Home, he was also taught self-reliance skills such as cooking and sewing. Little did he know that thousands of miles away, fate was determining his destiny.

Contest with Destiny

While George Parks, the new territorial governor, was in Washington D.C>, it was pointed out to him that Alaska was the only U.S. territory lacking its own flag. When Parks returned north, he brought with him the idea for a territorywide contest among students for the flag’s design.

Benny didn’t think he had much chance to win, since he was only 13 and competing against much older students. But he did have his own impressions of the place he grew up – a region virtually barren of trees but where the sky extended from horizon to horizon and where bears and wildflowers were numerous.

While other students created elaborate patterns visualizing Alaska’s wildlife, mining or marine heritage, Benny kept his simple. Along with his entry, he outlined for the judges the personal meaning he placed behind the symbols he chose – eight gold stars on a field of Blue: “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly of the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear symbolizing strength.”

Symbol of hope

The judges unanimously selected Benny’s design from 700 entries from all around the territory, heralding it for its simplicity, originality and symbolism. In exchange for his winning entry, Benny received a gold watch engraved with the flag and $1,000 toward his education.

The prize was awarded in 1927, when times were tough in Alaska. The economy was suffering greatly as Alaska’s wealth was siphoned off by interests in the U.S., and as a territory with little political clout, Alaska had little recourse to stop the flow.

Immediately following the contest, Governor Parks began receiving requests from across the nation for the new flag with the wonderful backstory. This not only helped give Alaska’s residents a sorely needed morale boost, but also increased Alaska’s profile to the rest of the world. With the subsequent election of President Roosevelt and the influx of “New Deal” projects, Alaska finally gained tractions to succeed in its push toward statehood.

From Aleutian orphan to ambassador.

At first Benny hid from his celebrity, literally running into the woods when visitors arrived at the school. But over time he used his notoriety to serve as a “goodwill ambassador” for Alaska, and helped to break down barriers for native Alaskans. He often said that the greatest thrill of his live was receiving a standing ovation as he was presented to the delegates of the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1959, when his flag was converted from a territorial flag to a state flag. He also became the first Alaska native to be officially admitted to the Elks Club in Alaska, despite the protests of Elks Lodges in the Lower 48.

Benny spent most of his adult life in Kodiak working as an airplane mechanic, but in his free time he used the sewing skills he acquired at the Jess Lee Home to make autographed Alaska flags for each newly crowned Miss Alaska, legislative members and visiting dignitaries. Although he passed away in 1972, his memory lives on as streets, schools and monuments in Alaska commemorate his remarkable contribution to the great state of Alaska.

I invite your comments.
Al R

1 comment:

The Cruisin' Fools said...

Hey Al,
I read that in the magazine and found it very interesting. Enjoy your cruise to Alaska next week. Have a couple of drinks for us.
Tim and Diane