Bud Kennedy

It’s Flag Day, y’all: How a Texas ceremony led to the birthday party for the U.S. flag

In 1845, when Texas and the U..S merged, the U.S. already had a national flag and holidays

But Texas helped give the U.S. one lasting patriotic tradition:

Flag Day.

In 1916, with the U.S. on the edge of world war, President Woodrow Wilson led a giant march on the first official Flag Day and then delivered a powerful speech warning against “disloyalty” and “foreign sentiment” pressuring the U.S. into war.

Six years earlier, in 1910, St. Louis banker and cotton broker Ben Altheimer just happened to be in San Antonio on June 14.

The military flag ceremony that evening by soldiers at U.s. Army Fort Sam Houston stirred his heart.

Back in St. Louis, the way he later told the story, he offered to provide flags for any shop that would put them out on Flag Day.

Back then, Flag Day was only an unofficial anniversary of the 1777 day when Congress adopted Betsy Ross’ flag.

By 1912, with Altheimer enlisting help from Christian and Jewish faith leaders, St. Louis declared an official citywide event.

He is not the only “Father of Flag Day.” Wisconsin kindergarten teacher Bernard Cigrand was promoting the day in school in 1885, and a New York teacher followed in 1888.

Websites and Jewish community publications quote The New York Times news or feature stories about Altheimer, who went on to become a New York lawyer and philanthropist.

In 1924, only eight years after the first celebration, a reader wrote the Times asking to give Altheimer official credit.

“That grand old man … is the originator,” reader Adolf Teschner wrote.

“It is unjust not to give due credit to the venerable gentleman whose suggestion and influence caused this date to be set aside.”

In Altheimer’s reply, he thanked the reader but wrote modestly that the military always observed Flag Day and he only helped bring it to the rest of America.

In comments at a 1921 dedication ceremony, the German-born Altheimer appealed to Americans and God.

“You love your country,” he said: “Give it your aspirations and your efforts. Give it your love and devotion, your character. Give it the best you have — yourself, heart and soul.

“This will enable you to pay in a measure to your country what it has given you and all its citizens — independence, opportunity, freedom of conscience to serve your God and your religion in your own way. God save America.”

He never described the San Antonio ceremony or exactly what inspired him.

But it probably involved a Texas-size show of flags.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.