When the World Runs Something New Up the Flagpole, Scholar Whitney Smith Is First to Salute

updated 06/17/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/17/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was the kind of moment for which Whitney Smith lives. Home alone among the flags of all nations, America's only full-time vexillologist was busily researching the great Greenland flag flap—begun after that island, a self-governing province of Denmark, adopted an emblem with a bright pagan sun instead of the traditional Scandinavian cross—when he was interrupted by an international bulletin. The Philippines, by executive order of Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, had just changed the shade of blue on its national flag. Galvanized, Smith dispatched to his clients by the next post color specifications for the revised flag. His mailing list includes the publishers of the English-speaking world's leading encyclopedias and various protocol conscious organs of government, among them the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon and the United Nations. "I put the information in their hands just as fast as I can," Smith says proudly.

As executive director of the Flag Research Center, which he founded in 1962 and runs out of his rambling 16-room house in suburban Winchester, Mass., Smith is truly a man who lives his obsession. Several years ago he removed all the shutters of his house, with the intention of having them painted. But he never got around to that; it was too low on his list of priorities. His priorities, in fact, are all contained in his now shutterless home, which is crammed with 10,000 volumes on flags, 19 of them written by Smith himself, a vast card-catalogue system, and, in a dehumidified chamber, the national flags of more than 1,300 countries.

A thoughtful man, Smith, 45, is not oblivious to the fact that his mode of living may be seen as eccentric. "I'm a monomaniac," he says, "that's clear. But I'm more fortunate than most people because I have something that infuses my whole life. I relate flags to everything. It limits my life, I know. I'll probably never get into music or drama. I have no television set in my house. Only one radio. I drive a 1951 Plymouth. I don't go out to eat in expensive restaurants. Those things aren't important to me. What I do is peripheral, but it gives me pleasure. I work at it nine hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. I never take a vacation."

Nor does it trouble Smith that vexillology, a term he coined himself, derived from the Latin vexillum, for flag, remains one of the least known and appreciated branches of scholarship, just as Flag Day, celebrated this week, seems perennially the orphan of holidays. Though he would prefer wider recognition—if not for himself then for his field, which he regards as a legitimate cousin of the established social sciences—he is content to continue his study alone. And don't tell him flags aren't important. "Look at Iwo Jima," he says, harking back to the immortalized Marine flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi. "Six guys putting their lives on the line to put a stick in the ground with a piece of cloth on top. The President didn't tell them to do that. They did it instinctively, and people responded."

It would be wrong, though, to assume that Smith is a flag-waver. While he professes genuine excitement about the individual liberties the stars-and-stripes represents, his passion for the American flag, or anyone else's, is scholarly and not chauvinistic. He was appalled by an old Texas law that allowed a judge to sentence an offender to 25 years in prison for flag desecration. "Our flag stands for freedom," he says. "The most fundamental desecration of the spirit of the flag is to limit what can be done with it." To make his point, Smith once appeared as a defense witness for a teenager in Massachusetts who was arrested for sewing a flag to the seat of his pants and sentenced to six months hard labor. "I have always prided myself on being a pragmatist," Smith explains. "I want to understand why people are emotional about flags. But I want to have an outside perspective. Essentially I like to think of myself as a Martian, one who has no prejudices, who comes to earth and sees some cloth on a stick and notices that if you step on it, people get angry."

Once a full-time faculty member at Boston University, where he received his Ph.D. in political science, Smith dropped out of the academic mainstream in 1970 at the age of 30, because, he says, "I wanted to play flags." Years earlier, when most children his age were interested in play, Smith was already deep into a hobby that more resembled work. He traces his adult obsession to memories of a childhood Patriot's Day parade at which his father bought him a miniature American flag, and to The Golden Encyclopedia he got for Christmas in 1946 which featured colorful illustrations of flags of the world. The 6-year-old was dismayed to discover discrepancies; some flags were pictured differently in various texts. Some books said the German flag was black, white and red; others said black, red and gold. Some books showed the Saudi Arabian flag with a white stripe; some didn't. Smith began firing off letters to consulates and chambers of commerce all over the world, trying to get information he could rely on. "At first it was just a hobby," says Smith. "Then I started asking questions. They were unusual questions and I got reinforcement. People thought 'Oh, what a clever boy.' It was unique. It was not like being good in baseball."

As his avocation took shape, Smith learned it was almost impossible to find written descriptions of flags of any but the largest countries. "The flag books didn't have the flags of the smaller countries," he says. "I wanted to know about those flags. Some of the kids thought I was weird. But to be 13 years old and literally the only person in the Western world who knew what the flag of Bhutan looked like, well, this was my world." By the time he graduated from high school Smith had more than 400 small flags in his room. He published his first article at 18, and within two years was doing consulting work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After leaving Harvard, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1961, he began publishing the Flag Bulletin, a bimonthly journal he now distributes to 800 subscribers around the world.

Over the years Smith has designed the national flag of Guyana and 21 flags for the Saudi Arabian navy, and assisted in designs for the islands of Bonaire and Aruba. But his real life's work, the monumental project that he knows must outlive him, is the vast compilation he refers to as Corpus Vexillorum Mundi, involving the collection, presentation and written description of every national flag that has ever flown. Divorced, with two grown sons who do not share his singular passion, Smith believes the undertaking will consume all his energies: He will trace the evolution of the flag from what he calls "the first primordial rag dipped in the blood of a conquered enemy" up to and beyond the Old Glory that U.S. astronauts planted on the dusty face of the moon. Oddly enough, there is one thing missing in Whitney Smith's life: a pole for a flag in his yard. "I just never got around to it," he says. "If I did have a pole, I'd fly a different flag every day."

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