Nobody knows more about the American flag than Dr. Pete Keim. Pete, who co-authored the book, “A Grand Old Flag,” with his son, Kevin, now has about 700 American flags in his personal collection, many of them one-of-a-kind gems.
Pete and his collection get a little more traffic around Flag Day, which was celebrated Thursday, and other patriotic holidays.
Pete once was a physician with what was then Valley Family Practice in Tarentum and a Natrona Heights resident. Now, he’s retired and splits his time between Pittsburgh and Austin.
Most folks rarely think about the history of the American flag. In order to spread the word, Pete organizes flag exhibitions at museums across the country and frequently lectures.
More than just the flags themselves, he also collects the stories behind them, charting the history of the nation and many of the people who touched or were touched by the American flag.
One of his favorite stories involves a flag in his collection that was carried at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.
At an exhibit in Texas, a young Hispanic boy skeptically asked Pete if the flag was real. Pete assured him several times, finally saying, “Yes, it is real. That actual flag was carried into a major battle in the Civil War.” The 12-year old pondered that for a moment, took one step back, sharply saluted, and turned and walked away.
Sometimes Pete will ask audiences for one word that says what the flag means to them. Most folks say things like “liberty” and “freedom,” but two answers stand out for Pete.
To a young Texas girl, the flag means “welcome.”
An old World War II veteran in Tampa said that it means “home.”
Joe Fennimore, an American soldier fighting with the 4th Infantry in Germany, wanted his advanced scout unit to fly the flag, but they were so far forward that they were unable to get one. Joe pressed on.
In an abandoned auditorium, he found a Nazi flag, a discarded blue German officer’s jacket and some other useful items. After some strategic snipping and the notching-out of star shapes on the back of the jacket, Joe crafted his own “Stars & Stripes” on an old sewing machine, and it flew above his unit throughout the war.
Chris Fennimore, a producer and host at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh, and Joe’s son, said, “We used to play army with that flag when we were kids. And now they handle it with white gloves and display it under glass at The Smithsonian.”
“My dad was an ordinary extraordinary guy from Brooklyn,” Chris says. “He was very patriotic.”
It can easily seem that these old flag stories have nostalgic value and little relevance today.
But Pete Keim wants us to think about one more thing, and it doesn’t have to be around Flag Day to have meaning.
“The largest flag maker in the United States still makes 7,000 flags a week to be placed on the caskets of those who served in the military.”
By any measure, the world is a far better place because of the great things that have been done under our flag.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).