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Kevin Cullen

No signs of tradition flagging at annual Harvard-Yale game

Paul Lee, Harvard class of ’46, (right) passed the modern Little Red Flag to Dick Bennink, class of ’38, at the Harvard-Yale football game on Saturday.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Paul Lee, Harvard class of ’46, (right) passed the modern Little Red Flag to Dick Bennink, class of ’38, at the Harvard-Yale football game on Saturday.

As the days grew crisp and short in the fall of 1884, an enterprising Harvard freshman named Frederick Plummer put aside his books long enough to fashion a small pennant of crimson silk. He stitched an olive-colored H to one side and ­attached the flag to a walking stick.

Then he took the train down to New Haven and waved the Little Red Flag while his beloved Crimson got pummeled by the Bulldogs, 52-0.

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Perhaps that humiliation led Harvard to suspend football the following year. But in 1886, the game and The Game — the Harvard-Yale tilt — was back, and so were Fred Plummer and his Little Red Flag. Plummer and his flag graced no less than 59 Harvard-Yale games before his death in 1949.

After the Little Red Flag was offered up in Plummer’s estate, William Bentinck-Smith, editor of Harvard’s alumni magazine, floated the idea of having the Harvard man who had attended the most Harvard-Yale games inherit the honor of carrying the flag. Over the next half-century, eight different men held the Little Red Flag at The Game.

But in 2001, the Harvard Varsity Club changed the criteria, designating a super fan, in this case, a retired academic from Pittsburgh named Bill Markus, class of ‘60. When he took over, Markus had only been to about a dozen Harvard-Yale games. But he has attended every Harvard football game, home and away, over the last two decades.

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Markus has had a great run. With Harvard’s win on Saturday, the Crimson are 11-1 since he began carrying the Little Red Flag at The Game. His dedication is legend. Once, when his car broke down while driving to New Haven for The Game, he jumped in a taxi and paid $150 to get to the Yale Bowl.

Still, this is Harvard, and at Harvard you mess with tradition at your peril. A couple of years ago, a retired lawyer from Maine named Spencer Ervin, class of ’54, used the letters page of the alumni magazine to suggest reviving the tradition of the Little Red Flag being held by whoever has attended the most editions of The Game. Steve Goodhue, class of ’51, a retired banker from New York, contacted Ervin to say it was a great idea. Goodhue and his wife, Judy, channeled Fred Plummer and created a replica of the Little Red Flag.

Still, this is Harvard, and at Harvard you mess with tradition at your peril.

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Two years ago, after a slightly unscientific search, they presented the modern Little Red Flag to Paul Lee, class of ‘46, a retired engineering manager from Woodstock, Conn., who has missed only one Harvard-Yale game in the past 67 years.

“I grew up in Watertown,” 88-year-old Paul Lee explained. “I got good grades in sixth grade, and as a reward my folks got me season tickets for Harvard football in 1935.”

Lee enrolled as a freshman at Harvard in 1942, and a year later was overseas, fighting in the infantry. Saturday’s Game was his 70th.

“A lot of people were unhappy that the tradition was discontinued,” said Lee, who like Ervin and other traditionalists suspect that donating to Harvard became a criterion. “Tradition means everything. Money, not so much.”

Bob Glatz, head of the Varsity Club, scoffed at that.

“This has nothing to do with money,” he said.

If it did, he noted, the Little Red Flag would be the preserve of the finance whiz Glenn Hutchins or the great Joe O’Donnell, a pair of sports-loving alums who this year each gave $30 million to Harvard.

“Look,” Glatz said, “I’m sympathetic to the people who want to keep it in the hands of the person who has attended the most Games, but it’s impossible to verify. I still get calls from guys saying they’ve been to more Games than this one or that one.”

To Harvard men like Spencer Ervin and Paul Lee, such reasoning in heresy. They take that word Veritas on the Harvard Shield seriously. If a Harvard man says he’s been to The Game, he’s been to The Game. Besides, the only person who would possibly lie about such a thing is . . . a Yale man.

On Saturday, after holding it for two Games, Paul Lee graciously passed the modern Little Red Flag to Dick Bennink, class of ’38, a retired banker who said he was attending his 73rd Harvard-Yale game. They both sat in Section 32, two rows apart. Bennink’s word was good enough for Lee.

“I grew up in Cambridge,” Bennink said. “I sold programs at the Stadium, penny apiece, when I was in high school. At Harvard, I was football manager for four years.”

Bennink was a commissioned Navy officer in 1941, two weeks before Pearl Harbor, when his ship docked in New York City. On that Saturday morning, he asked for shore liberty so he could make The Game. He got to Harvard Stadium with two minutes to go in the first half.

Dick Bennink is 95 years old. He survived Guadalcanal and the first kamikaze attacks in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, so he’s not going to sweat who gets to hold the Little Red Flag.

As for the original Little Red Flag, except for the few hours Bill Markus holds it during The Game, it is kept in a top secret location. Even Markus doesn’t know where.

“Only three people know,” Bob Glatz said, and he said it in a way that, if he told me, he’d have to kill me.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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