Collector's Devotion to Old Glory Never Flags

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Kissel's grand obsession began 39 years ago, when he was a teenage Boy Scout who bought an American flag to hang on his parents' front porch. It took a few decades for it to wear out, he says, but by then his fascination with the flag had simmered into eccentricity.

Kissel, 54, of Anaheim, owns the world's largest known collection of replicas of historic American flags, according to flag experts. He has flags with nine stripes, flags with stars seemingly arranged at random, flags that he's designed with his own hand. He has 155 federal flags, 50 state flags and five territory flags.

"His collection is almost unbelievable," said David Martucci, president of the North American Vexillological Assn., the nation's largest group dedicated to the study of flags.

Today, Flag Day, is one of the biggest days of Kissel's year, a day he lives for.

"The flag, in all the forms it has taken over the years, represents to me everything that it is to be an American. It is a work of art," says Kissel, a chemist. "You have the stars, the states, the union, you have the stripes, which originally were there for merchant ships, but now symbolize fair commerce. I could go on about this forever."

He could, and he does; Kissel is an encyclopedia of flags.

If you want the story behind George Washington's personal flag and how it influenced the modern American flag, Kissel can easily engage you for an hour of storytelling. Ask for the stories of the dozens of Revolutionary War flags and he'll talk a flag a minute.

Kissel stands up, opens his briefcase, folds a piece of paper, wields a pair of scissors and offers up a perfect, crisp five-pointed star: "That's it. Simple as that. Betsy Ross didn't want to go through the work of making six-pointed stars, which was then a requirement to be a star."

Kissel says he "goes on forever about flags" because, he figures, most Americans know too little about the country's most recognizable icon, how it came to be and how--if you reach far enough back into history--one can find flags that have stars arranged like battlefield formations.

These days, he spends his free time preparing for and giving flag presentations. Today he is giving one in Downey. Last week he was in Anaheim, where he displayed 86 flags from his collection during the Anaheim Flag Day ceremony.

He said his patriot passion formed in 1985 when he was traveling the world on business and realized how little he knew about his homeland. "Everybody else seemed to know so much more about their country," he said. "I was stupid."

'We Live This,' Says His Wife

His compulsion began. He found a flag store that sold the famous Betsy Ross flag, and the buying and collecting went from there. As it stands, he's spent $14,000 on flags, forsaking vacations and other luxuries for "red, white and blue cotton."

His home, though, isn't what an outsider might expect from a flag fanatic, not at first glance at least. To be sure, outside there are often 11 flags hung for passersby. But inside, the flags are stacked neatly in a closet that breathes a musty and comforting smell of cardboard and cloth. They are out of sight and protected, as they should be, he said.

But look closer and little flags decorate model ships (appropriate for their era, of course), rest among arrangements of dried flowers and decorate the crannies of his house. "We live this," said his wife, Rosemary, 55, a teacher who gives presentations with her husband.

The reason Kissel has so many different flags, he says, is because it wasn't until 1912 that a law was passed that dictated an official uniformity for the flag. Before that, people were free to interpret the design as they wished. And that they did, a fact that drives Kissel to keep an eye out for a design that some seamstress put together 200 years ago.

"Ordinary people could make their own flags. You still can now; it may not be official, but it is not disrespectful--it is honorable--as long as it has the proper number of stripes and stars."

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