A drawing contest became a life-changer for 13-year-old Benny Benson.
The year was 1927. The Alaska American Legion sponsored a design-the-Alaska-flag contest for children in the seventh through 12th grades. Alaska wasn't even a state yet — it was a territory — but some people thought that having an official flag was a good first step toward gaining statehood.
Of 142 entries submitted from territory schools, Benny's design was chosen because of its simplicity: eight gold-colored stars on a bright blue background. Seven stars form the Big Dipper, part of the Ursa Major constellation. The large eighth star in the upper-right corner represents the North Star.
Benny's written description of his design stated: "The blue field is for the Alaska Sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is for the future of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear — symbolizing strength."
Benny's prize was a gold watch with his flag emblem engraved on the back. He also received $1,000, equal to about $14,000 today.
In a TV interview years later, Benny recalled the moment his name was announced as the winner. "I darn near fell out of my seat!" With a hearty laugh, he added, "And school closed for the rest of the day."
It was a nice change from the sadness of Benny's early childhood. When he was 3, his family lost its house in a fire and his mother died of pneumonia (pronounced nuh-MO-nyuh). Because his father was unable to care for him or his younger brother, the boys lived in a group home for children until they graduated from high school. Benny later used his contest award money to further his education — learning to repair diesel engines and eventually becoming an airplane mechanic in Kodiak, Alaska.
In 1959, 32 years after Benny won the contest, Alaska became our 49th state, and his flag has waved proudly ever since.
Benson died in 1972, but he is still remembered fondly throughout Alaska. The Kodiak airport is named for him, as are several roads and a school. A stone memorial to the teen stands in the coastal town of Seward, where he lived in 1927.
Denis McCarville, head of AK Child and Family of Anchorage, said that each year, on July 9, Alaska Flag Day, Benny is remembered with pride, song and the retelling of his story. "It is said, as a boy when people would come to see the 'famous' designer of the Alaska flag, he would usually find a way to be out in the woods far away from the attention."
"As a grown man," McCarville added, "Benny became used to the attention, while remaining humble. A friend of his once said that Benny was probably grand marshal of more parades in Alaska than anyone of his time."
In a 1971 television interview, Benson, then 57, said, "I think the biggest thing that ever happened was when they flew the Alaska flag to the moon with other state flags" on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. "I think that was quite a deal."