L. Beckstrom-Smith, 97, part of the first Human Flag event

April 28, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

LaVerne Beckstrom-Smith, one of the few surviving participants in the first Human Flag ceremony at Fort McHenry in 1914, died Tuesday of heart failure at Mercy Hospice in downtown Baltimore. She was 97.

Mrs. Beckstrom-Smith lived for 60 years in a large Victorian house on Chestnut Hill Avenue in Northeast Baltimore until she moved to Christ Church Harbor Apartments in 1996.

The former LaVerne Horton was born and raised in South Baltimore and was a 10-year-old pupil at a city school when she participated in the first Human Flag celebration Sept. 12, 1914.

She became one of 6,500 city students who created a human flag on Defender's Day in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the writing of the Star- Spangled Banner.

President Woodrow Wilson attended the ceremony, which featured children dressed in red, white and blue capes. Once placed in line, they created a human flag of stars and stripes.

"She still has her little red cape with hood, which is stored in the attic," said her daughter, Beverly J. Gallen of Glen Burnie.

"It was something she never stopped talking about. She remembered taking the streetcar to Fort McHenry and being given a box lunch. She said it was so exciting," said Mrs. Gallen.

"She was dressed as a red stripe and was somewhere in one of the middle rows," said the daughter.

Mrs. Gallen said her mother attended reunion lunches of the original Human Flag participants, who met yearly at the Hyatt Hotel.

"It was a marvelous experience, and they never forgot the importance of it," said Louis Koerber of Rodgers Forge, founder and former president of the National Flag Day Foundation, which for years sponsored the event.

"They would come and proudly show their pictures and certificates that were signed by Mayor James H. Preston. Some of them said it was the most important thing they did in their lives," he said.

Only a handful of original participants are alive. The exact number is unknown.

Dr. Edmund G. Beacham, a retired Stoneleigh physician who was a Human Flag coordinator with the National Flag Day Foundation, said, "We're down to just a few, and she was certainly one of the last. Given their ages, there aren't many around."

After graduating from Western High School, Mrs. Beckstrom-Smith attended business school and, in 1924, married G. Theodore Beckstrom.

In the 1930s, the couple established G. Theodore Beckstrom Painting & Decorating Inc. Mrs. Beckstrom-Smith was treasurer of the commercial and residential painting and decorating company until she retired in the 1970s.

Her professional memberships included Women In Construction, of which she was treasurer.

After her husband's death in 1968, she married Harry W. Smith, who died several years ago.

She and her first husband were avid gardeners and planted more than 1,500 tulips, roses and azaleas on the grounds of their Chestnut Hill home.

"People called it a miniature Sherwood Gardens, and crowds came to see it," said Mrs. Gallen.

Mrs. Beckstrom-Smith insisted on living independently. She enjoyed baking her favorite sugar cookies for family and friends and attending bingo games.

"Her favorite expression was `Everything in moderation except ice cream.' Her favorite flavors were vanilla and cherry, and it was a medical emergency if she ran out of them," said Mrs. Gallen, laughing.

She was a member the Highland Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, Bou-Tem-Sci, the ladies auxiliary of the Boumi Temple, the Greenway Garden Club of Guilford and the Three Arts Club of Homeland.

She was a member of First English Lutheran Church, Charles and 39th streets in Guilford, where services will be held at 10 a.m. today .

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Her son, Robert W. Beckstrom, died in 1987.

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