When Robert G. Heft was 17, he made a flag.
In March 1959, Heft was a high school junior in Lancaster, Ohio, and the standard United States flag still had 48 stars: Alaska had only recently joined the union, and Hawaii’s admission was several months away. As an assignment for his American history class, Heft decided to make a new U.S. flag with 50 stars, which he cut out of mending fabric, ironed onto a rectangle of blue cloth, and attached to the stripes of a flag that belonged to his grandparents. It received a B-minus. As his teacher, Stanley Pratt, recalled decades later, “I gave him a grade that he didn’t like much, so I told him to get the thing approved in Washington, and maybe I’d change the grade.”
Bob Heft took his teacher at his word. His next move was to send his flag—on which he had arranged the 50 stars in alternating rows of six and five—to Michael DiSalle, the governor of Ohio. After DiSalle arranged to display it at the state Capitol and governor’s mansion, Heft brought it to his congressman, Walter H. Moeller, who lived in Lancaster. Heft later told Marc Leepson, the author of Flag: An American Biography, “I said [Moeller] could put it in a file cabinet or closet or whatever and if there was ever a need for a 50-star flag, if there was a contest—I didn’t know how they went about it then—this was my concept of what it should look like.”
After Heft graduated from high school the following year, he took a job as a draftsman at Diamond Power Specialty, a company that made parts for energy plants and boilers. One morning, Heft said, he was telephoned at work and told that he would hear shortly from the president of the United States. As he described it many times afterward, when the call came, the other employees listened on a speakerphone as Dwight D. Eisenhower informed Heft that his design had been officially chosen as the new 50-star flag.
According to Heft, he was told that thousands of designs had been submitted by the public, and five had been singled out for submission to Eisenhower, who selected the flag that had been made for Pratt’s class. During their call, Eisenhower invited him to attend a ceremony at the White House, where the new flag would be formally displayed for the first time on Independence Day. Heft immediately put the president on hold to ask his boss for time off. As soon as he confirmed that he could go, he turned back to the phone and said, “Dwight, are you still there?”
On July 4, 1960, Heft remembered, he found himself seated between Eisenhower and Moeller on a viewing stand in Washington, watching as the flag was raised. When Moeller encouraged him to talk to the president, Heft only managed to ask, “How do you like your job?” Heft claimed that throughout the ceremony, the same thought kept running through his mind: He needed to get home to ask Stanley Pratt to change his grade.
As soon as the event was over, Heft recalled, he left Washington and drove all night back to Lancaster. Early the next morning, he emerged from his house, which was surrounded by news vans from all three networks, and headed to the school, along with a crowd of reporters. Finding the startled Pratt in a classroom, he reminded his old teacher of their deal. Pratt opened his grade book, produced a red pen, and changed the B-minus to an A. “I guess if it’s good enough for Washington,” Pratt conceded, “it’s good enough for me.”
The incident became famous. Heft is credited as the flag’s designer in a prominent position on Wikipedia, in numerous books, and on the website of the Smithsonian Institution. Versions of the story can be found on such media outlets as CNN, Fox News, Time, NPR, the Washington Post, Snopes.com, and Slate. A 2006 episode of Jeopardy! included the clue, “In the late ’50s junior high student Bob Heft designed a new arrangement of these, now known to every American.” When none of the contestants got it, host Alex Trebek revealed the correct response: “Stars on the U.S. flag.” He added, “See, we learn.”
Heft was frequently called “the modern-day Betsy Ross.” Although he disliked the nickname, it testifies to the power of the legends that Americans tell about the origins of their national symbols. The Betsy Ross myth has been largely debunked—the claim that she made the first United States flag is supported nowhere in the historical record—but it satisfies a craving for patriotic figures who fulfill a certain need.
Heft’s story, while very different on the surface, has similar qualities. And its problems are more troubling than nearly anyone has known up until now.
I first heard about Heft through the Today I Learned community on Reddit, which is devoted to sharing surprising facts. Heft’s story has appeared there so often that it was initially tagged as a “frequent repost,” but the latest submission received more than 21,000 upvotes.
After reading it, I was skeptical enough to run a search for Heft’s name on Newspapers.com, which archives millions of scanned newspaper pages. Within five minutes, I found an article from the June 14, 1962, issue of the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette. The headline was “Lancastrian Prizes 50-Star American Flag He Made Here.” Its account of how Heft made his flag closely resembled the standard story, but instead of any assertion that it became the basis for the official design, it merely said that it was “considered Lancaster’s first.”
This claim was already far more modest than the notion that Heft was credited as the flag’s designer, but the most damning sentence came in the third paragraph: “As it later turned out, this was the arrangement that the U.S. government used when they started manufacturing the flag.” In other words, less than two years after his alleged triumph, his own hometown paper said nothing about Heft designing the flag, let alone his dramatic meeting with Eisenhower.
After looking deeper, I was unable to avoid the obvious conclusion. Heft’s story—which many reputable sources cite as a historical fact—is false. While he did make a 50-star flag for his history class, and Pratt may even have agreed to change the grade if it were accepted by the government, everything else in the usual account is a lie that Heft embellished for nearly half a century. If the origin story of the nation’s most recognizable symbol is untrue, it illustrates how misinformation about the American past can be deliberately invented and uncritically perpetuated. The real question is how and why Heft did it—and why so many people wanted to believe that it was the truth.
Robert Galen Heft was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on Jan. 19, 1942. His parents, Maynard G. Heft and Viola C. Weaver, separated when he was a baby. Maynard Heft ran into trouble with the law—he was charged with stealing chickens as a teenager, and for the theft of 75 pigeons—and served time in the Michigan state reformatory. Viola eventually remarried, and neither would play a significant role in their son’s childhood.
When Heft was 1 year old, he went to live with Sheldon and Gladys Schromme in Lancaster. While he spoke of the Schrommes as his grandparents, their exact relationship is unclear—Gladys may have been a great-aunt on his father’s side—and Heft remembered them both as strict disciplinarians.
Lancaster was a small city of around 25,000 people, about 30 miles southeast of Columbus, informally known by its residents as “the whitest town in America,” which made it a favorable region for the Ku Klux Klan. (One of Bob Heft’s nephews, Maynard, told me that Heft privately claimed that his grandfather had been the grand dragon of the klan in Ohio.) As a boy, Heft attended Calvary Lutheran Church and enrolled in the Cub Scouts. At Lancaster High School, he joined the library club and student council, but he was socially awkward—a large kid with thick glasses—and he never went on dates or attended dances.
Heft always said that designing the flag in Stanley Pratt’s American history class was the turning point of his life, and he precisely dated the beginning of the project to Friday, April 18, 1958. This is inconsistent with the assertion—which appeared equally often in his recollections—that he was 17 and a high school junior at the time. The chronology also conflicts with his claim to have contacted Gov. Michael DiSalle and Congressman Walter Moeller, neither of whom was in office until the following year. To make his story more impressive, it seems likely that Heft consciously revised the timeline in his favor.
In fact, the actual date was probably sometime in March 1959. Heft said on multiple occasions that his project was inspired by a newspaper “filler item” on Alaska, as well as by a local middle schooler who received a letter from the mayor after making a 49-star flag. This may reflect a photograph that ran in the Eagle-Gazette on Feb. 19, 1959, showing an elementary school student lowering a flag made by his mother, Mrs. Alvin Eckhart, which was “believed to be the first new flag [with 49 stars] to be flown by a Lancaster family.”
On March 18, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act. Six days later, a photo of Bob Heft’s 50-star flag was published for the first time in the Eagle-Gazette. A caption said, “In teacher Stanley Pratt’s American history class an observant visitor might have blinked his eyes if he stopped to count the stars on the American flag. There were 50 stars on the flag. Bob Heft, a student, replaced the blue field with a new one containing the 50 stars. This flag, which will be the official design for the 50 states, has alternating rows of six and five stars each.”
It seems safe to conclude that Heft made his flag shortly before this item appeared, which is consistent with his supposed age and grade. (His transcript confirms that he was enrolled in American history that year as a junior, earning a B for the class.) Equally notable was the assertion that the flag “will be the official design,” which doesn’t suggest that Heft himself was regarded as the designer. At that point, the final design was already favored by the government, although not formally announced, and the need for a new flag with 50 stars would have been evident to anyone.
(The real origins of the flag remain unclear. Photographs of flags with the modern arrangement of 50 stars were widely circulated as early as 1952. Of all the people who took credit for spearheading the design, perhaps the most convincing was William R. Furlong, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, who was the first official known to have discussed the flag with Eisenhower. In a 1953 letter held by the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Furlong told the president, “There are many possible arrangements of 49 stars and of 50 stars. Some are shown on drawings enclosed herewith.” Although the drawings have not been preserved, they probably included the design that became the final pattern, which had been previously studied by the Office of the Quartermaster General.)
On Feb. 2, 1960, Heft’s flag was mentioned again in an article on the high school library club: “It was revealed at the meeting that one of the members, Robert Heft, is scheduled to appear on the Garry Moore show, I’ve Got a Secret, sometime in March. Mr. Heft has received letters from President Eisenhower and Gov. DiSalle stating that the new 50-star flag he made was the first 50-star flag owned and flown by an individual in the United States.” Even if we assume that these letters existed, the article didn’t identify Heft as the designer of the flag itself, and his unsubstantiated claim about I’ve Got a Secret would recur frequently in the future.
As a senior, Heft was active in student politics—he had met Congressman Moeller on a field trip the previous fall—and organized a Young Democrats club for Fairfield County. After his graduation in June, he began working in the drafting and design division of Diamond Power Specialty. It was at this point that Heft later stated that he received his fateful call from Eisenhower, and it also marks the moment that his story falls completely apart.
Heft consistently said that he witnessed the debut of the 50-star flag in Washington on July 4, 1960, in the company of the president. All three elements of this narrative are demonstrably false. An item in the Eagle-Gazette reveals that Heft actually spent that Independence Day at a family reunion in Ohio with his grandparents. Eisenhower himself was at his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and he only returned to the White House in the evening. The ceremonial hoisting of the first 50-star flag didn’t even take place in Washington, but at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where it was raised many hours earlier, at one minute after midnight.
Even if Heft’s homemade flag appeared in D.C., it would have been far from unique. On July 4, a total of 5,200 50-star flags were displayed over the Capitol. Any senator or representative could ask for a flag to be flown—they were often used as gifts for constituents—and a record number of requests was received that day. Furthermore, Heft’s flag may not have been there at all. At least one early article on his career says that it was flying at the time over the state Capitol in Ohio.
If neither Heft, Eisenhower, nor the debut of the flag itself was in Washington on Independence Day—or even if just one piece in his story can be ruled out—then the entire account is likely a fabrication. Needless to say, no evidence survives of Heft’s triumphant return to Lancaster, which he said was covered by television cameras and dozens of print and radio reporters. In reality, when Heft was mentioned again in the local paper in November, he was identified merely as the “creator of the first 50-star handmade flag to fly over the Capitol building, the United Nations building, and other Washington government buildings,” although the article still asserted that he was scheduled to be featured on I’ve Got a Secret.
Heft’s flag went unmentioned until June 14, 1962, in the Eagle-Gazette article that originally aroused my suspicions. It said that Heft had made the flag “considered Lancaster’s first” three months before Hawaii was admitted to the union, which is consistent with the spring of 1959. There was nothing about Eisenhower or Heft’s status as the official designer. Instead, it stated only that his handmade flag had flown over the U.S. Capitol and the capitols of all 50 states.
The following year, at 21, Heft ran unsuccessfully for the Lancaster City Council. He often spoke in public, but his flag appeared in none of the articles on his campaign, which would have been the obvious place to mention it. After his defeat, he began working at a real estate appraisal firm associated with the county auditor’s office, and he headed a district youth committee for former astronaut John Glenn’s first run for the Senate. A June 1964 article in the Eagle-Gazette implied that he still expected to appear on I’ve Got a Secret, and he said that he was sending his flag—“believed to be one of the first made”—to embassies overseas.
A month later, Heft was described as the flag’s designer for the first time. The Baltimore Evening Sun reported on a visit by Heft to Maryland, where he was invited to fly his flag at Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. Heft was falsely credited with running Glenn’s senatorial campaign in Southern Ohio, and he said that he made the flag three months before Alaska became a state, pushing the date back to 1958. According to the article, “Mr. Heft figured that if the annexation of predominantly Democratic Alaska was imminent, the annexation of predominantly Republican Hawaii was sure to follow soon to keep political peace and balance.”
Heft’s implication that no one else had anticipated the admission of Hawaii—which had usually been mentioned in the same breath as discussions of Alaskan statehood—was ludicrous, as was the notion that he made his flag “while other flag designers were still fooling around with 49-star patterns.” There was no mention of Eisenhower, but the other pieces of the myth were falling into place, and Heft evidently felt more comfortable telling the story in Maryland.
In Ohio, where he was employed as a deputy county auditor, he often gave talks to local organizations. Heft said that his flag had covered 3.5 million miles on its travels to different embassies—an unlikely achievement, since the Earth is less than 25,000 miles in circumference—and showed off other designs with 51, 52, and 53 stars. While press coverage referred to his handmade original as “America’s most valuable flag,” he did not claim to be its designer, at least not at home.
As Heft took his act on the road—he reportedly spoke in seven other states—he grew bolder. Before he delivered a speech in Zanesville, Ohio, he was identified in the paper as the man “who designed the official 50-star United States flag.” Back in Lancaster, he said that his flag had flown over the American Embassy in Saigon on the day before it was bombed, in an apparent reference to the car bombing that occurred there on March 30, 1965. (In his earliest versions of the story, Heft said that the flag was returned to him unscathed, but in later accounts, he would point to a patch in one corner that he said was a mark of the attack.)
His claim about Vietnam was a reflection of the national mood. Over the next few years, the flag itself would become a symbol of political division. While supporters of the war displayed flag pins, patches, and decals, protesters used it for their own iconic images, whether by burning it or, in the case of Abbie Hoffman, being arrested for “defiling” it by wearing it as a shirt. Heft’s own views were closer to the latter group, as he revealed a few years later: “I am critical about the war in Vietnam. I don’t think we should be there at all.”
As many Americans longed for a return to the simpler patriotic narratives of the past, however, Heft was ready to use this to his advantage. In an Eagle-Gazette article on May 16, 1966, he was finally identified in his hometown as “the 24-year-old Lancaster man who designed the 50-star arrangement in the U.S. flag.” He may never have made the television appearance that he so often claimed, but there was no question that Bob Heft had a secret.
Heft’s lie slowly grew over time, and his exaggerations frequently took the form of large numbers. In a 1967 talk in Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, he said that his design had been chosen over 90,000 identical entries because his flag—which he now backdated to 1958—had arrived a year and a half before the others. (The real number of public submissions was more like 3,000, many of them from elementary school students, and while the Eisenhower Presidential Library possesses at least two proposals with the same arrangement, there was never a formal competition.) He also claimed to have turned down an offer from the Smithsonian to purchase the flag, which he said elsewhere had been insured by Lloyd’s of London for $250,000.
After working for various schools as an art and drafting teacher, Heft took a position as an audio-visual director and industrial arts instructor at the Fairfield School for Boys, a minimum-security juvenile correction facility in Lancaster. He proudly displayed his flag in a trailer painted in patriotic colors, and he continued to present himself as its designer in paid talks, including one for hundreds of Girl Scouts who contributed nickels out of their own pockets.
In 1972, Heft moved to Napoleon, Ohio, a farming town of around 8,000, where he managed two movie houses for the Armstrong Theatres chain. His political ambitions had never gone away, and three years later, he ran for mayor, winning with 56.6 percent of the vote. He was the first Democrat to occupy the office in two decades, and the election coverage said that he “received national attention in 1960 as the youth credited with designing the 50-star flag.”
The victory emboldened him further. At a Kiwanis Club talk a few years earlier, Heft had confined himself to saying that he received a letter from Eisenhower crediting him with the flag’s design. Now he began to spin the story in its full form, complete with the call from the president, his trip to Washington, and the grade that was changed thanks to “an act of Congress.” (Heft went on to often claim that he met every sitting president since Eisenhower, but—while he did present a key to the city of Napoleon to Ronald Reagan before Reagan was elected to the Oval Office—no photographs of any such meetings have survived.)
A few years into his tenure as mayor—which was characterized largely in news reports by his hostility to the mostly immigrant workers who picked tomatoes on nearby farms—Heft made a failed run for the Ohio House of Representatives, and he tried again in 1984. Sen. John Glenn, who later credited Heft with the design of the flag in a speech in the Senate, hailed him as “the greatest mayor the city of Napoleon ever had,” but Heft was soundly defeated. After his loss, he settled back into town, where he ran a real estate brokerage and taught business classes as an instructor at Northwest Technical College in nearby Archbold.
In 1985, he was interviewed by a reporter from the Associated Press, who wrote that the flag story had brought Heft “a good living.” Heft said that he spoke to scouting groups and small organizations for free, while charging $1,500 plus expenses for others, which accounted for half of his earnings. He wore a shirt and tie emblazoned in flag colors; owned a red, white, and blue telephone; and drove a car with the license plate “50FLAG.”
After six terms as mayor, Heft lost in 1987 to a 25-year-old Republican challenger. A profile in the Dayton Daily News caught Heft sporting a flag pin on his lapel, driving a red Firebird, and listening to a cassette tape of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” Heft said that he still made “a pretty good income” from his talks, but another Napoleon resident observed, “I think his story about getting a call from Ike and putting him on hold is getting a bit old.”
Although the former mayor had clearly benefited from his story for political purposes, when George H.W. Bush seized on the American flag as a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, Heft expressed annoyance: “It sort of gets me when a candidate for president or any candidate for public office tries to wrap themselves in the flag, almost saying it is exclusively theirs or their party.” Heft spoke out against the Supreme Court decision that ruled that burning the flag was a form of protected speech, but his profile gradually diminished, and he moved back to Michigan, where he worked as an education manager for Junior Achievement in Saginaw County.
In 2003, an Ohio Historical Society marker was unveiled at Heft’s old high school in Lancaster, which was identified as the birthplace of the 50-star flag. Two years later, Heft made headlines when he tried to sell his original flag on eBay, along with various photos and letters, including one from Bill Clinton. The minimum bid was set at $250,000. Heft claimed that a New York museum had once offered him half a million dollars for the flag, which he was selling now to establish a college fund for his nephew Edward’s children. (When we spoke by phone, Edward said that he had been personally close to his uncle, whose story he supports.) It failed to attract any bids, and a listing on Heft’s personal website was equally unsuccessful.
Although Heft said afterward that he received interest in the flag from Ross Perot and Bill Gates, he had trouble convincing serious buyers. A prominent vexillologist—or flag expert—named James Ferrigan looked into it on behalf of the Smithsonian and a private collector. Ferrigan was unable to verify the claim, but he told me that he was struck by Heft’s air of sincerity: “He was a great salesman. That’s what I would have reported back,” Ferrigan said. “He believes that story.”
At events, Heft autographed flags for sale, which was technically a violation of the United States Flag Code, but he reassured attendees that he was the only person authorized to do so by the government. Although he said that he traveled 100,000 miles annually to give hundreds of speeches, the available evidence points to a much less expansive itinerary, confined largely to Michigan and Ohio. He also stated that he had toured with Bob Hope and appeared three times on The Tonight Show. (Photos do exist of him with Hope and Johnny Carson, but Heft is wearing an identical suit and lapel pin in all the pictures, and he may have met them both at the Ohio State Fair, where they performed while he was displaying his flag in 1968.)
Heft claimed to pay a visit every year on Sept. 11 to the site of the World Trade Center, where he signed flags that he sold for $20 each. “Since 9/11, a lot of people have become patriotic,” Heft observed, “even though they weren’t before.” He lived long enough to see another shift in the political climate. Late in life, he endorsed Bill Johnson, a Navy veteran who ran unsuccessfully from the far right in a Senate primary in Kentucky. Heft rarely expressed specific political opinions in public—it was hardly in his interest to do so—and he may have simply found himself caught up in the changing politics of the flag itself.
On Dec. 12, 2009, at the age of 67, Heft died of a heart attack at Covenant Medical Center in Saginaw. Despite his failing health, he had continued to make appearances to the very end. In his obituary by the Associated Press, he was called the man “credited with designing and sewing the first 50-star American flag.” Darrell Zolton, the lawyer appointed to his estate, was ordered by a probate judge to sell the flag to establish a trust for Heft’s great niece and nephews, but no buyer could be found who was willing to pay the desired price. To cover legal fees, it was turned over to Zolton’s law office in Saginaw, where it is kept in a locked safe to this day.
In the years since he died, Heft’s tale has gone largely unquestioned—a recent TikTok video, “This Boy Made History Just to Prove His Teacher Wrong,” has racked up millions of views—but there have been a few dissenting voices. When I asked Peter Ansoff, the president of the North American Vexillological Association, whether the questions about Heft’s flag were an open secret among vexillologists, he said, “Yes, I think so—that’s a fair statement.” On the talk page for Heft’s Wikipedia article, which has since been deleted, an editor noted that the text referred to his story as “a widespread myth,” but the entry on the flag itself attributed its design to Heft: “As such, we have one article directly contradicting another; which means that one or the other must change.” As I write this, Heft is still credited near the top of the article “Flag of the United States,” with citations to sources in the Washington Examiner and the Baltimore Sun.
While Heft’s reasons for his fabrications might never be clear, he may have managed to deceive even himself. His lie grew in a feedback loop, and it isn’t hard to imagine him tailoring his story to his listeners, responding to their laughter or praise, until it evolved into something that he could no longer control. When I spoke to Marc Leepson, the scholar who included Heft’s account in his book about the flag, he compared it to the “stolen valor” of individuals who make dishonest claims of military service: “They tell the story for so long that it isn’t uncommon for them to really believe it—that they did do all this stuff.”
Zolton, the lawyer for the estate, told me, “If you heard Bob Heft talk, he was an extremely believable person. I just find it hard to believe that his entire story was false.” If nothing else, it eased his loneliness. Heft never graduated from college, married, or had children. Even if it was all based on a lie, the framed flag that he carried—which looked suspiciously better than it did in its earliest known photo from 1959—gave him a measure of the respect that he wanted. A few years before his death, he told a reporter, “That piece of cloth … That’s me.” At Holy Cross Lutheran Cemetery in Saginaw, he is buried with a granite headstone shaped like the flag.
Yet he wouldn’t have succeeded at all if the story hadn’t also served the needs of others. Legends about the flag tend to reflect the national mood, and they become especially powerful during periods of reaction. The Ross myth was popularized in part by opponents of the suffrage movement, who reframed its sentimental picture of the patriotic value of domestic “woman’s work” as a rebuke to feminism. A few decades later, it was embraced by nativist groups, and it played a similar role in organizations that opposed socialism and communism, including the American Legion, which sponsored many of Heft’s talks.
In Heft’s case, the tale of a student from Lancaster, Ohio, who triumphed over the experts, including his teacher, is the sort of legend that many Americans want to believe. “It can happen to anyone,” Heft said. “It doesn’t matter if you come from a small town.”
This aspect of his story partially explains why so many trustworthy sources have presented it as an entertaining slice of history, but the truth about achievement in this country is far less reassuring. Lancaster itself has suffered grievously in recent decades from drugs, declining schools, and the devastation of local industry by private equity. Meanwhile, the basic elements of Heft’s myth—nostalgia, a distrust of elites, a yearning for a supposedly less complicated version of America—have been distorted in ways that its creator never imagined.
Bob Heft’s true story can feel like a parable in itself, and it hints at how insidiously a false narrative can take hold when personal motives are amplified by larger forces. Heft seemed to lie out of a longing for attention, embellishing his credentials and inflating the numbers to appeal to his available audience. As he sold patriotic merchandise with his name on it and gained a modest amount of political power, it was hard to pin down his actual beliefs, apart from his hostility toward immigrants. If he had been luckier or more charismatic, he might have done it on a larger scale. Heft took his lie as far as it could carry him. Others have made it much further.