Bud Kennedy

How Flag Day came from Texas and a German in San Antonio

A worker at Lone Star Banners and Flags adjusts a flag.
A worker at Lone Star Banners and Flags adjusts a flag. Star-Telegram

When Texas merged with the United States, the older U.S. already had a national flag, holidays and anthem.

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

Flag Day.

A century ago Tuesday, with the U.S. on the edge of the first World War, President Woodrow Wilson led a giant march on the first official Flag Day and then delivered a chain-rattling 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 happened to be in San Antonio on June 14.

The military flag ceremony that evening by soldiers at Fort Sam Houston, one of the Army’s largest bases, 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.

Then, Flag Day was only an unofficial anniversary of the 1777 day that 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.

You love your country. … Give it your love and devotion.

New York philanthropist Ben Altheimer, a “Father of Flag Day”

But Altheimer was among Wilson’s invited guests in 1916 at the first official observance and always claimed with some justification that his work in St. Louis started the flag-waving for Wilson to take the holiday national.

Websites and Jewish community publications quote the 18 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 1910, Fort Sam Houston was a growing Army base about to become the nation’s largest.

“I have done what I could … to impress upon others the deep religious and patriotic significance,” he wrote.

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.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.