In 1927, when Alaska was still a U.S. Territory, Territorial Governor George Parks persuaded the Alaska American Legion to hold a competition. The Governor thought it would help the statehood movement by having a state flag, so the Legion held a contest, open to all Alaskan children, to design Alaska’s new flag.
142 designs were sent to Juneau from all over the state. A thirteen year old living in Seward, John Ben “Benny” Benson won the contest with a simple, yet elegant design.
Benny Benson was born in the fishing village of Chignik. His father was a Swedish fisherman, his mother an Aleut-Russian. Benny’s mother died when he was just three, and the family home burned to the ground shortly afterwards. His father, John Ben Benson Sr, could not take care of his three children alone, so they were divided up. Benny and his brother were put into an orphanage in Unalaska; his sister Elsie was sent to a school in Oregon.
The Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska was home to hundreds of Aleut orphans. It eventually moved from Unalaska in the Aleutian Chain, to the town of Seward on the mainland. It was from here that Benny Benson sent his design for the Alaska flag, as a seventh grader.
Benson described his design to the judges this way: “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska flower. The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.”
The Territorial Legislature approved the new flag in May of 1927, and Alaska officially flew its new flag for the first time on 9 July 1927. Benny Benson received a watch, with the flag design etched on it, as well as a $1000 educational scholarship, which he eventually used to become a diesel mechanic.
Benson Boulevard in Anchorage, which is a major east-west thoroughfare, is named after Benny.
A Benny Benson Memorial is located at milepost 1.4 of the Seward Highway in Seward.
The airport in Kodiak was renamed the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport in 2013.
A school in Anchorage on Campbell Airstrip Road has been named the Benny Benson School.
Benny Benson died of a heart attack in 1972. He was 58.
The black & white photos courtesy of The Alaska State Library Archives