Whitney Smith – A Personal Reminiscence

by Ted Kaye

I first met Whitney over 35 years ago—in Madrid at the 11th International Congress of Vexillology.  On the first day, when the vexillologists visited the Spanish Naval Museum, I observed a mustachioed figure pointing out an error in a replica flag.  Someone identified him to me as Dr. Smith.

On my next trip to the Boston area I visited the Flag Research Center.  That journey, according to Jim Ferrigan, allowed me to append “vex” to my name, much like a Muslim uses “haj” after making the pilgrimage to Mecca.  After the full and engaging tour of the FRC, Whitney described its library as the largest collection of flag books in the world, asking me to guess where the second-largest was.  His answer?  “In the basement—all my duplicates!”

How did I become “advisory editor” of the Flag Bulletin?  While organizing Flag Congress/San Francisco in 1987, I negotiated the publication of the congress proceedings by the Flag Research Center as a special FB issue.  In the course of proofreading over 20 articles and 260 pages, I got to know the FB house style and Whitney’s approach to editing.  Afterwards, noticing that the Flag Bulletin had the occasional typographical error, I suggested to Whitney that he send me articles in advance—since I was going to read them anyway I might as well help him catch typos.  Unable to resist wielding the red pen, I soon found myself suggesting copy-editing improvements.  Whitney quickly put me on the masthead and began routinely sending me article drafts for copy-editing.  Since then I edited well over 200 articles, some more than once!  The only problem with that arrangement is that since I was already familiar with the content, the published FB came as a bit of an anti-climax.

I participated in over 25 NAVA meetings and ICVs with Whitney, and what impressed me most is his willingness to engage anyone interested in flags—from the novice to the expert—with equal enthusiasm and grace.  For example, my son Mason (who was interested in flags before he could talk) first met Whitney at age 2.  Later, Whitney provided encouragement and guidance as Mason researched and delivered three award-winning papers at successive ICVs.  After Mason (at age 13) presented his first paper—on “Tribar Flags” in Victoria in 1999—Whitney formally welcomed him into the ranks of vexillologists and presented him with a signed copy of Flags and Arms through the Ages and across the World (a book we had always called “Whitney’s Big Book of Flags”).  I told Mason afterwards that he’d just completed his “tri-bar mitzvah”.

The next year, before starting his work on “Mappy Flags” for presentation in York, Mason asked Whitney what scholarship had already occurred—Whitney was able to tell him “the coast was clear”, and predicted he would find perhaps three dozen examples.  Whitney may have been as surprised as anyone when Mason identified over 400 flags with maps on them.  In gratitude, Mason provided a full copy of his paper and research materials to the Flag Research Center.  Later, Whitney would write a stellar college recommendation for Mason for his successful early application to Occidental College.

When the Flag Bulletin completed 50 years of publishing, I saluted Whitney—through this reminiscence—on his dedication to sound scholarship (even at the expense of timely publication), his commitment to advancing the science of vexillology (even if he has to repeat himself to reporters constantly), and his enthusiasm for promoting connections among flag scholars (even as it takes significant time away from his paying business).

The flag world owes Whitney a tremendous debt.  Our flags are at half-staff.

Whitney Smith gives congratulations and his book to Mason Kaye, long-time PFA member, on the occasion of Mason’s Driver-Award-winning talk at NAVA 33/ICV 18 in Victoria, BC, in 1999 (with 6 PFA members attending).

Whitney Smith, founder of modern vexillology, died on 17 November at the age of 76. For more on the life of Whitney Smith, see the obituary in the New York Times.

1 thought on “Whitney Smith – A Personal Reminiscence”

  1. A real flag enthusiast will never snob anyone, and so was Mr Smith as you said! Perhaps that’s because we are such a tiny community as well ;) R.I.P Mr Vexillology

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