Convention flag returned in time for celebration

Artifact spent time in Pennsylvania, Florida before returning home

Posted: Monday, February 06, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The eight stars of gold tend more to brown, and they rest on a field of black, not blue. The right side is tattered, and the upper corner missing. It could use a good old-fashioned cleaning.

But no one doubts the historical significance of the recently unearthed flag. It flew over Constitution Hall when the 55 members of the Alaska Constitutional Convention ratified Alaska's Constitution on Feb. 5, 1956.

"It's simply an artifact that bore witness to a remarkable time in Alaska history," said Joseph Hardenbrook, coordinator of the Creating Alaska Project, a hefty effort that includes gathering and identifying historic materials related to the Constitutional Convention for Alaska's 50th anniversary as a state in 2009.

"It might not offer a lot of research value, but there is definitely a historical value to having it preserved and back at the university where it originated."

Among the interesting items the project has garnered from Alaskans' closets and attics are an original copy of the Alaska Constitution donated by Peter Reader Jr., son of constitutional delegate Peter Reader; and a tablecloth signed by convention delegates donated by Neva Egan, wife of Alaska's first governor.

Saturday, retired Anchorage elementary school teacher David Schwantes will present the flag to the Creating Alaska Project board in Fairbanks.

The flag looks handmade, although Schwantes doesn't know who might have made it.

His story starts when he was a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and made friends with the Rev. Bill Slee, a Lutheran pastor; his wife, Louise; and their children.

The Slees moved to Alaska in 1960 to open a mission church for the United Lutheran Church of America. Louise worked as a typist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which houses Constitution Hall. Bill worked as a minister at UAF.

Louise's boss, Ben Atkinson, came out of his office one day with the flag. The hall had gotten a new flag, and he intended to dispose of the old one.

Louise asked if she could have it, and Atkinson gave it to her.

The church didn't take root and the Slees left Alaska a few years later for Pennsylvania, flag in tow.

They were its caretakers for the next three decades, as they moved from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts to Florida. Along the way, they trotted the flag out whenever they gave slide shows about their Alaska adventures at churches.

When their youngest child, Sam, graduated from high school and left home, he took the flag to Rhode Island.

"They gave it to me in the early '80s," Sam said. "It was the era of tapestries - I hung it across the ceiling in my living room."

Schwantes moved to Anchorage, where he taught elementary school for 28 years. In 2000, while at a National Education Association meeting in Atlanta, he made a side trip to Lady Lake, Fla., to see the Slees. By then, Sam was back in Florida.

"My dad and I went down the river to show him some alligators," Sam said. "The flag was in my shed and I asked (David) if he wanted it."

He did.

"He was happy as a kid," Sam said.

The flag has sat in a box at Schwantes home for the past six years. In the back of his mind, he always felt it should be returned to UAF. When he heard about the Creating Alaska Project, he knew the timing was right, and the Slees supported his plan to donate it.

"When I called and talked to the Slees, they were very excited," Schwantes said. "Louise said 'I knew if we gave it to you, you would do the right thing."'

Schwantes hopes it will eventually be displayed at Constitution Hall, which was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in November.

The flag will be refurbished and properly stored to prevent further deterioration, Hardenbrook said, while Constitution Hall is being renovated.

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