Long Beach maverick led a banner life

Times Staff Writer

No one could raise a flag -- or a controversy -- quite like white-bearded Thomas “Ski” Demski.

His Long Beach neighbors once took him to court, alleging to no avail that he violated a noise ordinance by flying a 30- by 60-foot U.S. flag at night in his frontyard.

A gadfly at City Council meetings, Demski regularly ran for the council or for mayor, campaigning on a motorcycle with a macaw, Peppy, on his shoulder. Later, he ran a bumper-sticker presidential campaign for Peppy as an alternative to Ross Perot.


In 2000, Demski asked the city to declare his 132-foot flagpole a cemetery so his ashes could be stored there. The city said no. But when he died two years later, at age 72, the vertical burial went ahead as planned.

It went ahead as planned, that is, after his shirtless body lay in a plexiglass casket during a wake at his house so folks could see the tattoos of flags, eagles and Santa Claus covering his torso.

Long Beach, needless to say, is a bit quieter without Demski.

But his Superflag business, managed by his trustee, Jim Alexander, still sells flags as large as 30 by 60 feet and rents models as big as 200 by 505 feet for $13,000 a day. Patriotism can be pricey.

And the pole with his ashes on top still stands in the frontyard of Demski’s house/headquarters, along with a bust of him.

No flags fly at night, though.

“It’s too expensive,” said Alexander, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer. “To light it would cost up to $400 a month.”


But the demand for outsized flags has remained bright.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Superflag donated a 95- by 130-foot model for a Long Beach State baseball game. This Fourth of July, at least three Superflag products will be on display around the country, and negotiations are underway to unfurl the 500-footer at a Harley Davidson event in Sturgis, S.D.

The latter banner was strung out across Hoover Dam in 1996 and won Demski a place in Guinness World Records in the “world’s largest flag” category.

In his characteristically offbeat fashion, Demski wondered if he might also win recognition from Guinness for a second accomplishment, undergoing a nine-way heart bypass operation.

Alas, he said, “Guinness doesn’t include that kind of category [and] besides, my doctor said he’d once done an 11-way bypass.”

Demski, who started out as a bumper sticker salesman, became involved in flags in a big way around 1980 when he saw a giant Stars and Stripes flying outside a car dealership along the San Diego Freeway.

“I thought, that really looks good.”

He erected his frontyard pole -- at a cost of $16,000 -- and christened it The Pole in honor of his Polish heritage.

When American hostages were released by Iran in 1981, Demski displayed a 47-by-82-footer in his frontyard. Soon his flags, made for him by a various manufacturers, were displayed at sporting events, county fairs and parades.

In 2001, he took the 47-by-82-footer to Washington, D.C., for President George W. Bush’s inauguration.

When a tattoo artist on a talk show mentioned that Demski’s bypass scar “would make a natural flagpole,” Demski had flags etched all over his body.

He so took to tattoos that, as his health worsened, he had the phone numbers of three of his doctors etched on his chest as well as his blood type (B negative). Above the numbers were the words: “In case of emergency.”

Later, during an exam, his cardiologist looked at this chest and said, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you have my phone number wrong.”

No problem. Demski simply had a new number tattooed beneath and had the artist draw a red line through the other one.

Two years before his death, Demski held a mock funeral for himself.

With a hypnotist’s help, he lay in the plexiglass coffin for an hour, while friends munched corned beef sandwiches.

But he knew the end was approaching.

In a December 2001 interview with The Times’ Bill Plaschke, he said, “I’m just waiting to roll over and die.”

Demski mentioned how proud he was that none of his flags had ever been vandalized.

His giant flagpole was unmarked and a painted flag and eagle on his house were unblemished.

“The flag, I guess, is one thing everyone understands,” he said.

A few weeks later, suffering from diabetes and depression as well as heart disease, Demski took his own life by overdosing on a pain medication.

Demski would be happy to know that his old pal Peppy retired from politics and is doing fine.

The blue parrot, age anywhere from 30 to 50 years, was adopted by bird-fancier Dianna Anderson, a former Long Beach cop who moved to Minnesota.

Anderson takes Peppy and her three other tropical birds to schools and nursing homes to educate and entertain.

“There are not many tropical birds in our part of the state,” she said, “and people even ask if she [Peppy] is dyed that color.”

It’s a good thing that Peppy has proved a delight, because she is not an inexpensive housemate. “She eats mostly Brazilian nuts that I have to order from New Jersey,” Anderson said, joking. “I thought maybe Ski had left a giant trust fund for the bird, like Leona Helmsley’s dog, but I guess not.”