Everyone has memories of 'Alaska Flag Song'

Dusenbury: 'I wrote the music ... from pure, unadulterated homesickness for Alaska!'

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2007

Carol Beery Davis was a poet, a writer and a piano teacher.

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I knew her well, because in the 1940s I took lessons from her at herfamily home on Sixth Street.

I was such a mediocre piano player that I tried to get Mrs. Davis talking to while away the half hour or so of lesson time.

She wrote a marvelous story of Alaska's flag that I recently purchased. It was published in 1964. It is a beautiful pamphlet with the blue and gold colored flag on the cover. It certainly deserves to be re-printed; it is full of her enthusiasm and love for Alaska.

As she tells in her forward, "Juneau was my home during all the years covered by the story of Alaska's flag." Her husband, Trevor, a famous photographer was on the seven-member final selection committee.

Designs were sent in from all over Alaska by seventh and eighth grade and high school students. There were 142 entries in all.

"At one point in our deliberations," Trevor Davis said, "we almost voted to select a polar bear on an ice-cake. But one of the ladies, another gentleman and myself protested so strongly ... that a second vote was taken and the flag we now have was chosen."

The flag designed by Benny Benson was a great success from the start.

Carol relates that the first flag was carried across the country and then the Atlantic Ocean to Paris for a convention of the American Legion.

"For a few days in 1927 the flag was on display in the Territorial Museum in Juneau. Loaned by Gov. George Parks, it left Alaska on the steamer, Yukon, accompanying the Alaska Legionnaires to Seattle. There it was exhibited prominently in the main lobby of the Olympic Hotel. It then boarded a special car, chartered to Chicago, and attached to the North Coast Limited of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

"The delegation had stories in all the papers, along the railroad route, and often made the front pages. From Washington, D.C. the Legionnaires went to Paris on the S.S. Leviathan. Again the flag was unfurled on the balcony in the main dining salon, there being no other flags except the United States and General Pershing's.

"In Paris, the flag was honored with prominence in the Trocadero, the convention hall of the American Legion.

"September 19th saw the convention parade of 20,000 Legionnaires. General John Pershing, Marshall Foch and Commander Howard Savage headed it. According to Belle Simpson of Juneau, we were "greeted with Vive l'Amerique and Vive l'Alaska, all along the lines and enough kisses were thrown ... to smother us."

The poem and flag song were created by Marie Drake and Elinor Dusenbury.

The office of the territorial commissioner of education wished to acquaint the school children of Alaska with the new flag and prepared to send each child a small flag with a copy of the act which authorized its adoption. But Marie Drake, the intuitive secretary to the commissioner, felt something else was necessary. The act was simply over their heads.

"It ought to be a jingle, which the children can easily read and understand, or they won't remember what it's all about," she contended.

"All right, go ahead and write one!" the Commissioner challenged.

"I will," and the lovely words sprang from her pen.

"Eight Stars of Gold on a Field of Blue, Alaska's Flag, May it Mean to You."

Recognizing the song possibilities of the poem, Elinor Dusenbury was stirred to write music for the words. She was the wife of the commanding officer at Chilkoot Barracks, in Haines, where they resided for 3½ years.

She said, "I wrote the music for Marie's beautiful poetry from pure, unadulterated homesickness for Alaska! I shed more tears on the boat going out than I ever have, before or since. I had abook on Alaska with the picture of the flag and Marie's poem. That did it!" When she reached her new home in Omaha, Nebraska, she wrote the melody.

"Marie and I had no arrangements about the song until I got to Juneau the next summer - 1938. She met me in the Baranof Hotel and we went to the piano and I played it for her. When I finished there were tears on her face. Fortunately for me, she loved it."

Everyone has memories of the "Alaska Flag Song." Most memorable for me was listening at the 20th Century Theater to a concert 50 years ago by the choir of Sheldon Jackson led by Michael Osorgin as the hauntingly beautiful voices sang of the "bear, the dipper and shining high, the great north star."

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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