Entering the spring of 2016, Columbia had a problem hiding in storage. Largely unused for more than 25 years, the city’s flag existed mostly in hand-sewn memory.
A vexillologist — that’s someone who studies flags — would classify that flag as an S.O.B., which isn’t a particularly attractive acronym for anything. But S.O.B. is something of a technical term in the flag world, and calling a “seal on a bedsheet” a flag is like a cardinal sin in vexillology.
Columbia’s first flag dates back to 1988, when Alberta Smith — the wife of then-mayor Rodney Smith — stitched the city logo onto a swath of white fabric. It was far from a well-thought-out masterpiece: representatives of Matto, Japan, were coming to town for a sister-city ceremony, and Columbia needed a flag fast.
Following the big event, the flag went wherever flags go to be forgotten.
Then, in 2014, the idea of a city flag experienced a resurrection.
“It was that time,” says Sarah Dresser, who worked on the administrative side of the city’s redesign efforts. “We wanted to elevate our — for lack of a better term — brand as a city.”
To find a new flag, there would be a contest open to the general public.
“We really see importance in creating opportunities for the community,” Dresser says. “That might be the first opportunity that that person gets to do something of that caliber, so we’re supporting them and elevating their work.”
There were 84 entrants, from kids with crayons to designers with professional software. Jon Sheltmire was one of them.
Who is he? “Nobody knows,” he says after Vox tracked him down. “I don’t think anybody cares.”
But if anyone asked him, they’d discover Sheltmire’s claim to CoMo fame: “Yeah, I designed the flag.”
Back in 2014, Sheltmire was considering a return to the University of Missouri to secure a master’s degree in art education. He had no experience or real interest in flag design.
“My dad saw the article (announcing on the contest) online and forwarded it to me with a little note saying, ‘I just thought this might be something you’d be interested in,’” Sheltmire says. “I thought, 'What can it hurt to try?'”
That meant familiarizing himself with the rules of both the contest and flag design.
The contest was simple. The city encouraged entrants to incorporate its logo — the outline of four people making a square while holding hands, which Sheltmire calls “the four men in a hot tub” — into the design.
After creating countless drafts, he eventually settled on his favorite: the logo over a blue-green cross.
“I knew, without even looking at other flags, and of course we’ve all seen other flags, how often the cross appears,” Sheltmire says. “I knew from the get-go that I wanted to use a cross because we are at the crossroads of the state. We’re right in the middle, and it seemed like a no-brainer to put a cross in there. But just how basic the design would be, I don’t think I knew until I got to that point. It started out more complicated and then eventually whittled down to the four men in a hot tub symbol slapped on top of a cross.”
From submissions to city council approval, the contest took more than a year and a half. A public vote and a series of committees whittled the field of designs to three finalists.
Then, in May 2016, the city council approved Sheltmire’s design as Columbia’s flag.
“It’s not like there was a lot of money involved, but it was certainly a neat thing to be able to say you (won),” he says.
Some cities, like Chicago and Washington, D.C., have iconic flags. Four years after its debut, Columbia’s has yet to join those prestigious ranks. There might be a reason why.
The key to an iconic flag is making it “simple enough to be an icon,” says Ted Kaye, the secretary of the North American Vexillological Association and writer of Good Flag, Bad Flag, the de facto textbook of flag design.
“In every bad flag design,” Kaye explains, “There’s a good design trying to get out. And when I look at the current flag of Columbia, I see a good flag trying to get out.”
Kaye recommends a simple change to upgrade the Columbian emblem: remove the city logo.
“The seal is for the government," he says. "The flag is for the people."
That fix would make the flag simpler, which Kaye says helps make it more adaptable in smaller forms, like patches and decorations, that Columbia residents might adopt.
For now, the flag receives limited attention. Sheltmire understands that.
"It’s just a flag,” he says.
Oh, if only it was just a flag.