UA Journey

Benny Benson

Thirteen-year old Benny Benson holds a handmade flag shortly after winning the flag design contest. Photo: Alaska State Library

Benny Benson was born in Chignik, a small village on the south shore of the Alaska Peninsula on October 12, 1913. John Ben Benson, Jr. was his full given name.

His father, John Ben Benson, was a Swedish fisherman and his mother, Tatiana Schebolein, was an Aleut-Russian. During these years Alaska Native villages were being hit with waves of devastating epidemics and at the age of 3, Benny, his younger brother and older sister lost their mother to pneumonia and lost their house to a fire. This series of events caused Ben Benson, Sr. to split up his family. Benny and his brother Carl were sent to an orphanage in Unalaska and Elsie was sent to Oregon.

The orphanage was called the Jesse Lee Home and it served hundreds of Aleut orphans. The orphanage provided for the children in Unalaska until 1925 and then was moved to a larger facility having a more central location in Seward.

The Flag
In the first months of 1926, Territorial Gov. George Parks was working hard for the cause of statehood. During a trip to Washington, D.C., he saw the flags of the 48 states flying outside the old Post Office Building and after conversing with the postmaster general he was convinced that Alaska also needed a flag to fly alongside the others. He persuaded the Alaska American Legion to hold a contest open to all Alaskan children grades 7-12 to design a flag for the state.

The Jesse Lee Home in Seward provided a home to hundreds of Aleut orphans. Photo not dated.

By January of 1927, the contest rules were circulated to schools throughout the Alaska territory. The first stage of the competition was to take place at the local level and each town was to organize a panel of judges sending only the 10 best designs on to Juneau. By the deadline of March 1, 1927, 142 designs were forwarded from around the state .

The contest winner was Benny Benson, a seventh-grader at the territorial school at Seward. His design of eight stars to represent the Big Dipper, placed on a blue background to represent the sky, and the forget-me-not flower, was a unanimous winner by the panel of judges. By May of 1927 the flag design was unanimously adopted by the two houses of the territorial legislature.

On his design submission, Benny had also written some words of explanation:
“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 strenth (sic).”

Benny's original entry is housed in the Alaska State Museum collection. Photo: Alaska State Museum

The flag was flown for the first time on July 9, 1927. During this ceremony in Seward, Benny was awarded a watch with the flag emblem on it and a $1,000 educational scholarship.

Since the year 1927 was only four years after Native Alaskans received citizenship and the right to vote, this event became a source of great pride to native Alaskans. Natives throughout the state hailed Benny as a hero for winning the contest.

After graduating high school in 1932, Benny left the Jesse Lee Home. He returned to the Aleutians to work with his father on a fox farm at Ugaiushak Island. The price received for furs began to decline so Benny moved to Seattle in 1936. He used his scholarship money of $1,000 to enroll in the Hemphill Diesel Engineering School for diesel engine repair, and in 1938 married Betty Van Hise. The couple's first child, Anna May, was born in October of 1938. Their second daughter, Charlotte Abbot, was born in June of 1940. Benny was divorced in 1950, and he moved with his daughters to Kodiak where he became an airplane mechanic.

Benny Benson in his later years. Photo not dated

Benny had the opportunity to meet up with his sister in the mid 1950s, 30 years after their separation; she died soon after. His brother, Carl, also died in 1965. Due to an old injury, Benny's right leg had to be amputated in 1969, and shortly after, he met and married a former Jesse Lee resident, Anna Sophie Jenks in 1972. He died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 58.


Alaska State Flag and Song intertwined around Benny Benson