Move Over, Betsy Ross

Times Staff Writer

Roz Cannon has spent the better part of her life with American flags.

For four decades, she's sold them to everyone from government agencies to movie studios. She's sold them in all sizes--from toothpick flags to a seven-story, 48-star Old Glory for the 1990 movie "Avalon." (That one cost $6,300 and had to be shipped in a refrigerator box to the set in Baltimore.)

But this isn't a story about the flag so much as a story about the American behind the flag. The American child who pulled herself out of poverty. The American teenager who went West in search of opportunity. The young adult who worked hard to build a marriage, a family and a small business. And the adult who never went to college but still gave her two daughters a better life.

"I graduated from Stanford Business School with no debt," says Roz's daughter Mona Cannon, 48, whose business training began at the family's flag store. "My parents came from nothing and put two kids through college.

It just amazes me."

This is not to say everything has been a star-spangled success for Roz, president of Flag Headquarters, Manufacturers & Distributors in Burbank. Like anyone, she's made her share of mistakes. Like anyone, she's made difficult decisions along the way and wonders, in the rare quiet of her flag shop, if she made the correct ones.

She once dreamed of a career in radio, as either a broadcaster or a performer. She has the voice for it. Years ago, she answered an open call for talent by a local radio station and was chosen. But when they told her she had to take a host of classes, she had to drop it.

"What could I do?" says Roz, whose husband had died suddenly of a heart attack. "I had two kids and a business to run."

But she doesn't dwell too long on her choices, good or bad. In spite of everything, things have worked out, so she's not complaining.

"I've learned that with all the bad things that happen, something else always comes along," she says. "Something always does."

Roz's journey began in Hartford, Conn. She won't say exactly when. The topics of age and weight are taboo, she says. But it's safe to say she is from what Tom Brokaw would call "The Greatest Generation."

Her childhood and teen years were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. Those national times of hardship were matched, unfortunately, by bad times at home as well. One day Roz, then 11, came home from school and discovered that her mother had passed away.

"I went to wake her up and . . . nothing," she recalled. "They never did an autopsy. I still don't know what killed her."

Compounding her home problems even more was the fragile health of her father. He had a heart condition and couldn't work.

"I had to grow up fast," Roz says. "We had a home with no heat or hot water. And I'd get just one pair of shoes [a year], and when they got holes, I'd put cardboard in them."

"My daughters just love to hear that one," she adds with a smile.

Actually, her daughters, Mona and Pamela Cannon, can hardly believe it. As Mona says, "My mother's childhood was straight out of Dickens."

Roz's first foray into business came at 13. She worked in a bakery for 15 cents an hour and the occasional loaf of leftover bread. Her pay was below the minimum wage of the day, but she was below the legal working age and needed the job. The boss told her if someone asked, she was his daughter.

"I was working when my friends were still playing with paper dolls," Roz recalls.

From there, the teenage Roz worked a variety of jobs to bring in extra income for her family, which included a younger brother. Grocery store clerk. Secretary. Switchboard operator, and even machinist.

But about a year after high school, Roz heard that an uncle was moving to Southern California. The region was in a postwar boom, and he was heading West. And so was Roz.

"California meant opportunity," she says.

Roz immediately found opportunity, but not quite the kind she had imagined when she left Connecticut. She met her husband, Bill, shortly after arriving.

It was a Saturday night, and Roz was unpacking from a recent train trip back East to care for her sick father. Bill, then 19, drove up in his "brand new" used car--a black Pontiac from the 1930s.

He was supposed to take her two roommates for a ride, but they were out for the evening. So Bill and Roz went instead. Nine months later they were married.

"One of my roommates was upset for about a month [that I went out with Bill]," Roz says, laughing.

A decade later, the young couple found themselves with two kids and an ailing flag business called the James E. Perry Co. Bill, who worked there, had inherited the company after the owner had unexpectedly died.

"I didn't know a thing about flags," remembers Roz, who today can identify the flags of the world like a "Jeopardy!" champion. "I'd never even owned a flag."

The business quickly became a family affair. Bill handled sales, Roz handled the books. They also expanded the product line to include scoreboards, banners and bulletin boards. Gradually, the enterprise prospered.

It was during this time that the couple's daughters began pitching in as well. In their early and teen years, they would sometimes help out after school, weekends and summers. They'd stock shelves, wrap packages and do minor bookkeeping.

"I'd always nag my mom to let me post some of the invoices," says Mona, who today is director of finance for the Sierra Club Foundation in San Francisco. "I enjoyed getting the numbers in the right little box. I never considered it work."

Younger sister Pamela, 45, who now works as a product manager in a Swedish bank, also credits her early years with shaping an interest in business.

"I inherited a sense of what makes a business work," says Pamela, who lives in Stockholm. "I didn't plan a career in business but benefited from my early experiences."

Even as they worked part time, both Mona and Pamela excelled at school. Both were valedictorians of their high school class, Roz proudly points out. Mona got only one B in her high school career, and that came in physical education. Pamela did even better--she earned all A's.

The daughters didn't leave Burbank, however, without great sadness. In 1970, their father died of a heart attack while watching television at home.

"After that, Mom really threw herself into the business," Mona recalls.

With her daughters either in college or college-bound, Roz continued to build the family business. Soon, even with a smattering of competition, it seemed when a governmental agency or a movie and television studio needed a flag, Roz got the call.

Today, flags from her store fly over such area cities as Inglewood, Burbank and Pasadena, to name a few. And a sprinkling of her movie flags include those in "Dave," "The American President," "Air Force One" and "Independence Day."

At one time, when her children were young, Roz had hoped that one of her daughters might take over the family business. But she realized that with their outstanding educations, running a family business would be very low on their list.

"I gave up hope of that a long time ago," Roz says. "You don't get a Stanford MBA and run a business like this."

Despite the considerable professional knowledge of both her daughters, Roz never called them for help. Not that either daughter expected such a phone call. It wouldn't be their mother's style.

The same traits--fierce independence and determination--that helped her make the family business a success also made it difficult to ask for help. That is, if she ever needed it.

"I really came to understand the value of my mother's experience and instincts [while] in business school," Mona says. "She's done things with no formal business education that some people could never do--no matter how much training they had."

Roz's accomplishments didn't come cheaply, however. She gave up a lot--consciously and unconsciously--for them. Since the death of her husband, the longest vacation she's taken was a week in Hawaii in the mid-1970s. Other than that, the most she's taken off is three days in a row, and that's rare because she has only a single employee as backup.

"I've been called a perfectionist," Roz says. "Which I understand today is a bad word. But that's the way I am."

But perfection has a price. The pressures of business haven't made it any easier to stop smoking, Roz admits. She knows it's not good for her and she's tried to quit many times.

"It's my only vice I have left," she says during a smoke break.

So, she's still smoking and still working and probably won't quit either one any time soon. Until then, expect to see her among the stars and stripes with a smile on her face.

"I don't think I'll ever retire," she says. "I still enjoy what I'm doing after all these years."

Martin Miller can be reached by e-mail at Martin.Miller@latimes.com.

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