Whitney Smith didn’t just write the book on flags, though he did that, too – more than two dozen, actually. He also coined the term vexillologist, which describes someone exactly like him: a scholar whose boyhood obsession unfurled into a lifelong pursuit.
As a teenager, he combined the Latin word vexillum (flag) with the Greek suffix logia (the study of) to make vexillology — the study of the history, symbolism, and usage of flags. He believed flags are more than simply designs on cloth.
“They are employed to honor and dishonor, warn and encourage, threaten and promise, exalt and condemn, commemorate and deny,” he wrote in his 1975 book “Flags Through the Ages and Across the World,” adding that “they remind and incite and defy the child in school, the soldier, the voter, the enemy, the ally, and the stranger.”
Dr. Smith, who founded the Flag Research Center in Winchester when he was just out of college, and went on to become a world authority on flags, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Nov. 17 in the Peabody Glen health care center in Peabody. He was 76 and previously lived in Winchester for more than 50 years.
“This is something people die for,” he told the Globe in 2001. “That ought to tell us there is more to flags than just bits of color.”
His fascination with flags began when he was a boy in Lexington, watching the annual Patriots Day commemoration of the American Revolution’s first battle. He was barely in elementary school when his father bought him a souvenir flag. Around the same time, an aunt gave him an encyclopedia that included an illustration of people from around the world. Each was dressed in an outfit that represented a country, and each held that nation’s flag.
“There was just something about that, the idea that here was the whole world,” he said in 2001. For him, studying flags was a way to visit foreign countries while reading in his Lexington bedroom. At 10, while watching a Lowell Thomas documentary about Tibet, he saw the country’s flag flash on the movie screen. “There I was in the dark, tying to make a little sketch,” he recalled.
Then one summer, he recalled, “I wrote to every US state and every Canadian province asking for information on their flags.” Flags that arrived from those inquiries were the beginnings of a collection that grew to several thousand. The Briscoe Center for American History at University of Texas Austin now houses the Dr. Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection, which includes his flags, the correspondence and articles he wrote, and the clippings he gathered.
The university also received his expansive personal research library. Books about flags that he kept in his Winchester home numbered far more than 10,000, a collection that was “larger than what the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, Harvard University, and the British Museum collectively have on the subject,” he claimed in the 2001 interview. “I’ve been to those institutions. I’ve spent hours in them, in fact, in the days before computerized information sources, writing down by hand all the information on the file cards in their library so I would know what books there were so I could try to acquire copies.”
In the early 1960s, just after graduating from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Dr. Smith cofounded the Flag Bulletin newsletter. He subsequently helped organize the First International Congress of Vexillology, held in the Netherlands in the 1960s, and he was a founder of the North American Vexillological Association.
Dr. Smith designed the national flag for Guyana and was a consultant for the design of other flags. He also was a reliable source of information about how flags should be displayed, offering advice to everyone from neighbors to the Smithsonian Institution.
While symbols and colors that make up a flag are important to each nation and state, “I’m mainly interested in the political significance of flags — as a means of social communication,” he told the Globe in 1979. “They help express the history of a nation, its ideology and aspirations. Attractiveness of design is only of secondary importance.”
Born in Arlington, Whitney Smith Jr. grew up in Lexington and Winchester. His father, Whitney Sr., was a lawyer and investigator for John Hancock Insurance Co. His mother, the former Mildred Gaffney, made ski masks for department stores during World War II.
His father, he told the Globe “was very active in sports of all kinds.” Dr. Smith didn’t share that passion, and he credited his father with being supportive of his love of flags. “I hated sports,” he said. “The fact that he helped me — he took me to the library, he took me to museums — was a way of saying, ‘I want you to be whoever you want to be.’ ”
Dr. Smith worked at the Winchester Public Library to put himself through Harvard and then received a doctorate from Boston University. He taught briefly before becoming a full-time vexillologist.
His marriages ended in divorce, including his first to Ann Ley Montgomery, with whom he had two children.
“He liked to tell jokes and he wouldn’t hesitate to tell jokes that spanned multiple languages,” said their son Austin of Seattle. “He was fluent in Latin, French, Russian. He would go to Catalonia and end up speaking Catalan two weeks later. And he would deny being fluent, and say he was simply conversational.”
In addition to his son, Dr. Smith leaves another son, Adrian of Seattle; two sisters, Sybil of Billerica and Lynne Hartwell of Gloucester; and a grandson.
The family will hold a private service. A public gathering to celebrate Dr. Smith’s life and work will be announced for next year to coincide with a North American Vexillological Association meeting in Boston.
Though Dr. Smith had tremendous respect for flags, including the Stars and Stripes, he defended the right to destroy one as part of a protest.
“It’s a great thing to be in a country where you can burn the flag. The American flag is great because of what it stands for, not because of the colors or the symbols,” he said in the 2001 interview, adding: “I’m essentially someone who studies flags rather than waves flags. I think of patriotism as doing things that are of benefit to the country: voting, working to change unjust laws, promoting something like the Equal Rights Amendment.”
While he opposed flag-burning, he was even more opposed to laws that would curtail the right to dissent. In a 1990 interview, he supported a US Supreme Court ruling that burning the flag is constitutionally protected, telling the Globe that citizens must “choose between liberty, which is the glory of this country, and the symbol of it.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.