Bob Heft loved flags, and he loved politics.
So when his U.S. History teacher handed out a homework assignment in 1958, Heft had the perfect idea.
He would design something nobody had seen: a 50-star version of the American flag.
Heft, a high school junior and Boy Scout in Troop 113 of Lancaster, Ohio, had been reading the news and knew that Alaska was poised to become our nation’s 49th state, with Hawaii soon behind.
So he cut out 50 stars from iron-on material and arranged them on some blue fabric. He sewed this new field of stars to his family’s 48-star flag.
“I had never sewn in my life,” Heft told StoryCorps in 2009. “I watched my mom sew, but I had never sewn. And since making the flag of our country, I’ve never sewn again.”
Heft’s teacher reacted with confusion.
“The teacher said, ‘What’s this thing on my desk?’ And so I got up and I approached the desk and my knees were knocking,” Heft told StoryCorps. “He said, ‘Why you got too many stars? You don’t even know how many states we have.'”
The final grade: B-minus.
Not terrible, until you consider that Heft’s friend picked up five leaves off the ground, taped them in a notebook and got an A.
Heft was upset, so the teacher offered what seemed like an impossible-to-achieve bit of consolation.
“If you don’t like the grade, get it accepted in Washington,” Heft remembers the teacher saying. “Then come back and see me. I might consider changing the grade.”
Two years and 21 letters and 18 phone calls to the White House later, Heft received a call from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Is this Robert G. Heft?”
“Yes, sir, but you can just call me Bob.”
“I want to know the possibility of you coming to Washington, D.C., on July Fourth for the official adoption of the new flag.”
On July 4, 1960, Heft stood next to Eisenhower as the 50-star flag was raised over the U.S. Capitol.
And what about Heft’s teacher?
“He said, ‘I guess if it’s good enough for Washington, it’s good enough for me. I hereby change the grade to an A.'”
In the decades after, Heft inspired people young and old with his follow-your-dreams story. He was a seven-term mayor of Napoleon, Ohio. He spoke extensively — as many as 200 engagements a year — and visited the White House 14 times under nine presidents.
Heft died in 2009, but his legacy survives every time we fly his 50-star creation.
And if the U.S. ever adds a 51st state — perhaps Puerto Rico?
Heft was prepared. Back in 1958 he designed a 51-star version that uses six rows of stars, alternating between rows of nine and eight.