SALT LAKE CITY — Most people have probably never heard of "vexillologists" — people who have a passion for flags and everything about them, their development history and design.
John Hartvigsen proudly waves that banner.
“I was asked, 'How do you become a vexillologist?'” said Hartvigsen, newly elected secretary of the North American Vexillological Association. “I’m sure the answer expected was, 'Well you go to this university.' No, you're just born one! You just have the ‘flag gene.’
“It's just part of me. I was looking at pictures of flags in the World Book encyclopedia before I knew how to read.”
Hartvigsen is one of only about six vexillologists in Utah. It's no surprise that he works at Colonial Flag in Sandy.
The term vexillology was derived in 1957 from the Latin word "vexillym," meaning flag, and the Greek suffix "-ology," meaning field of study. Today, there are about 400 members of the association, said Hartvigsen, who just returned from the 46th annual convention in Ohio.
“At our last meeting we had a couple of lawyers, a judge, several university professors, several librarians, schoolteachers — people from all walks of life,” he said.
With the election season in full swing and candidates standing in front of flags seemingly everywhere they go, it's a good time for vexillologists. Whether the flags are on TV, in a newspaper photo, or on a website, candidates are often surrounded by the red, white and blue.
“This is part of our political tradition,” Hartvigsen said. “It goes way, way back.”
Abraham Lincoln, Ulyses S. Grant and others always included the American flag in their campaigns. “Now, we just expect it,” he said. “It doesn't matter which candidate you see, if they're giving a formal speech, you will see flags in the background.”
Hartvigsen admits he pays close attention to such political events.
“I'm always looking to see if they made a mistake, is it displayed correctly, what flags are they using, do they have fringe on them,” he said. “So you see big flags, little flags. You see crowds, everybody waving flags, so that's what I'm looking for."
Nearly all candidates seem to be wearing American flag lapel pins now, too, he said, keeping the stars and stripes with them at all times. At the first presidential debate, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama wore them.
Hartvigsen said some candidates get criticized for “wrapping themselves up in the flag” or being a “flag waver,” but he believes the alternative is probably worse.
“It can help or hinder, but I think a politician ignores the flag at his or her own peril.”