SALT LAKE CITY — Of late, there’s been a movement to change the Utah state flag.

In the last legislative session, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, proposed a bill to that effect. The thinking is that a state flag should be simple, uncluttered, subtly profound. Like Texas, with its one star. Or New Mexico, with its sun symbol. Or California, with its golden bear.

Utah’s flag has a lot going on. Sego lillies, a bald eagle, arrows, dates, a slogan, bees, a beehive, the stars and stripes, and so forth. Its detractors say it is an SOB — Seal on a Bedsheet.

Such criticism has brought a man named John Hartvigsen out of his seat.

John is a vexillologist, which is Latin for “studier of flags.”

John Hartvigsen
John Hartvigsen | Lee Benson, Deseret News

And not just any studier of flags. Search the state of Utah, search the United States of America, search the entire planet and you’re not likely to find anyone any more knowledgeable about flags than John Hartvigsen — or more passionate. Ask him when he started loving flags and he answers, “Well, when did I start breathing?” One of his first, and fondest, memories is looking at the flag page in the family encyclopedia, long before he could read.

He joined the North American Vexillological Association when he was 22. He’s been a member for 50 years. He’s served as president of the organization and brought its national convention to Salt Lake City in 2011. Twice he’s received the association’s prestigious Driver Award for presenting the best papers at its conventions. Earlier this summer he went to San Antonio for the convention of the International Federation of Vexillological Associations and was made a fellow of the federation “for his significant contributions to vexillology” — as high as honors get in the flag world.

So that’s John Hartvigsen.

And what does he think of Utah’s flag?

Utah's preeminent vexillologist John Hartvigsen displays the Utah state flag, of which he is a big fan.
Utah's preeminent vexillologist John Hartvigsen displays the Utah state flag, of which he is a big fan. | Lee Benson, Deseret News

He thinks it’s great. Wouldn’t alter it. Considers those who want to change it to be, well, uneducated and misinformed.

“I get very nervous about going to something else,” he says.

A big part of it has to do with history and symbolism.

“Our flag reflects Utah’s rich history, culture, values and people and is recognized by Utah’s well-known emblem, the beehive,” he says. “The beehive represents not only the Mormon pioneers but later groups of settlers who formed their own beehive communities. Six arrows, the state's name and the sego lillies symbolize six native tribes that made Utah their home before later settlers arrived. The (American) flags and bald eagle represent Utah’s celebration at the end of the struggle for statehood, when Utah’s star rose to join the other stars in the national union.”

A new flag design, in his opinion, would lose some or most of that.

Then there’s the practical side.

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Not only would replacing the flag be costly in terms of production costs, but it would mean switching the old flag with the new version at hundreds if not thousands of locations throughout Utah and the nation. Not to mention in books and other publications. “That would be costly, and the changeover period would last years and would never be universally successful.”

John acknowledges he’s bucking a trend that ranks Utah’s flag in the bottom half of state flags. One non-scientific survey conducted by some of his peers at the North American Vexillological Association placed Utah 48th out of 50, based on modern flag design principles that call for no lettering or seals, simplicity and basic colors.

“But flag design is an art, not a science,” proclaims John, 72, who in his semi-retirement works part time for — what else? — a flag company, Colonial Flag in Sandy. Since 2010 he has helped the Colonial Foundation set up Healing Field and Field of Honor flag displays at sites around the country.

“Utah is a great state and deserves a great flag, and it has one,” says Utah's preeminent flag-lover. “The voices that ask for a change are very loud, but you don’t just listen to the loudest voice.”

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