ABOVE: Kathy Kohner rides the waves in 1956.
ON THIS DATE in 1941, future-flagmaker Robert Heft was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and the real-life Gidget, Kathy Kohner, was born in Los Angeles. Both made a mark as seventeen-year-olds in 1958.
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Heft’s story took place in Lancaster, Ohio, where the high school junior created a 50-star flag as part of a class project. His history teacher, Stanley Pratt, was less than impressed. Congress had approved statehood for Alaska on July 7, making it the 49th state. “You don’t even know how many states there are,” Pratt told Heft.
The student countered that Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, would surely become the fiftieth state. Fine, said his teacher. If Heft could get Congress to accept his 50-star flag design, his grade would be changed from a B-minus to an A.
Heft shipped his self-stitched 50-star flag to Ohio state senator Michael DiSalle, and then to his congressman. Sure enough, on March 12, 1959, Congress voted to make Hawaii the 50th state. More than 1,500 flag designs were submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but Heft’s flag, with its alternating rows of five and six stars, was the one chosen to represent the 50-state nation.
In July of 1960, Heft traveled to Washington, D.C., and stood by the president as his 50-star flag was raised.
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At seventeen, 4-foot-9-inch Kathy Kohner spent every moment she could on the shores near her home in Brentwood, California, surfing with her friends Moondoggie, Bubblehead, and Tubesteak. They called her Gidget, a contraction of “girl” and “midget.”
Kathy’s father, Frederick Kohner, used these real characters to craft a novel titled Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas. Published in 1958, it spawned seven Gidget novel sequels. The character gained wider fame with a 1959 movie starring Sandra Dee, a 1961 sequel, and a 1965-66 TV series starring Sally Field.