For love of flag, love of country
A chat with Paul Swenson of Colonial Flag
By Jennifer Weaver. Previously published in VALOR, July 2017.
As a young boy, Paul Swenson couldn’t contain his excitement to add crape paper to his bike and streamers to his handle bars to ride in the neighborhood parade in East Millcreek more than half century ago. His enthusiasm soon changed to a feeling in his heart that he never forgot during a holiday celebration that even now upon reflection brings an instant gleam to his eyes.
“I remember being in that flag ceremony as a little kid at the East Millcreek Library and the National Anthem was performed and I got a lump in my throat,” said Swenson. “The spectacle of the flag flying touched me back then and I thought everybody felt that way. I guess quite a few people did, but I think that is where my love for the flag started. I’ve always loved the flag.”
Swenson didn’t know as a child just how significant pieces of fabric woven together with a distinctive design specifically for symbolic purposes would be to him. As an adult, flags are now the means of providing others with peace and comfort with a vision of healing as each flag is sold and unfurled from his business, Colonial Flag.
The Sandy store was once a family business venture run from the home garage of his brother, David. After 37 years, Colonial Flag is now headquartered prominently off I-15 at 9300 South in a 36,000-square-foot facility, and one of the world’s most esteemed flag designers and retailers with more
than 760 businesses servicing 900 flag poles in the state of Utah alone. While that feat itself is worthy of praise, Swenson gives all the credit to his family, staff and customers, and simply wants to share his love of flags with anyone and everyone.
“There’s a connection between heaven and earth, and finding that connection makes everything meaningful, including death,” Swenson said, summarizing his favorite quote. “Missing it makes everything meaningless, including life. So, when people experience the true meaning of the flag
they are connecting to something bigger than themselves and that gives them meaning, and gives them healing.”
To say Swenson is sentimental about the American flag is putting it mildly. As a young student in a study abroad program to Jerusalem, Swenson placed a small stick with an 8-inch by 12-inch cotton replica of Old Glory attached to it in his suitcase and crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel on the day captives were released in the Iran hostage crisis. That same flag went with him to Portugal where he served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was his connection to America, to his home, he said.
Swenson kept that stick flag with him as a graduate from the University of Utah, and took it with him as he completed his graduate studies in international business at University of South Carolina. His first job out of college was with the U.S. Department of Treasury in Saudi Arabia to help that country
build its infrastructure. It didn’t matter if Swenson’s job took him to Egypt, Portugal or Israel, his stick flag was his constant companion. Even now, that little stick flag, though yellowed with age, is sacred to Swenson and is preserved in a special box.
Swenson is the first to tell you that it’s not necessarily that stick flag that he treasures so much as the experiences and the emotions he has felt with it while in his possession. He up to use the telephone to call their loved ones. Such moments are not fleeting to Swenson who has several imprinted in his
mind that have given him purpose, gratitude and a strong desire to serve others.
His devotion to the military also derived from an observation. Right after the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Swenson recalled the Middle East being on high alert for terrorist attacks. After traveling through the main avenue, navigating the zig-zag of concrete barricades toward the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia, Swenson witnessed a Marine fulfilling his duty standing guard.
“From about 10 at night until five in the morning, it was just me and that Marine guard on duty, and he was just standing there all night long with a shot gun under the counter, staring out,” Swenson said. “He was on duty, focused all night long and there was no one around. I’ll never forget that.”
Swenson returned to the states in 1987 and began working with his brother at Colonial Flag. He bought his brother out in 1989, and has owned the business solely since then. Colonial Flag was one of the first websites on the Internet in the early ’90s, Swenson said. Other significant milestones include crafting 200-foot flag poles, customizing flags for the Olympics and fashioning the largest Gay Pride flag in Seattle at more than 800 square feet.
But what Swenson says really is “miraculous” about being a business owner of flags is when his love for the American flag, appreciation for the military and tribute to innocent lives lost merged in a vision he had after reading a tiny article in USA Today . The story numbered the dead from the 9/11 attacks
nearly one year earlier, Sept. 11, 2001. It was a date ingrained in his mind as he read that article while ironically on a plane returning from a business trip on Sept. 5, 2002.
“I had this crazy vision of putting up a flag in honor of every person who got killed in the terrorist attacks,” Swenson said.
He shared his vision with a few people at a Sandy Rotary meeting he’d been invited to attend where 9/11 survivor, Matt Hufford, was speaking. After a few locations were discussed, Swenson drove to the area between Sandy City Hall and South Towne Mall and knew it was the area for a flag tribute.
After speaking with Sandy City officials, Mayor Tom Dolan approved the project. Swenson took the advice of an employee and mapped out a grid to place America flags on 8-foot poles in rows and columns to represent the people who lost their lives in what today is referred to as 9/11. In less than six days, the project was pitched, approved and implemented. And within three hours, 6 to 9 p.m., with the help of 300 volunteers, 3,031 flags were placed on the Sandy City lawn the night before the
first anniversary of 9/11.
“I came back on my motorcycle about three in the morning because I was a little bit worried about people stealing (the flags), and there was a gal walking through the field, and she would walk toward a flag and hold it, then walk to the next flag and hold it. I could tell she knew what the display meant and what it was for,” Swenson said. “Then I knew it is was going to be different than I thought, and it wasn’t just a physical demonstration of the magnitude of the loss of life, it was going to be a healing experience for people.”
That lone event 15 years ago evolved into a national call for fields of flags to honor the fallen and pay tribute to veterans, active military, law enforcement and fire fighters. Swenson answered that call by founding the Healing Field® and Field of Honor® programs administered by the nonprofit Colonial Flag Foundation that Swenson founded in 2003. Hundreds of flag displays have been orchestrated throughout the country with assistance from the Foundation, with hundreds more to come, Swenson said.
“It’s a tradition now,” Swenson said. “I will never retire. If you look at the flag, the whole symbolism of that canton is unity … If you take a flag, it could have 240 million stitches in it. And if you think that every single stitch represented one of us, then we are all a part of the fabric of the nation.”
Swenson is an Army Reserve Ambassador and volunteers with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, and continues to espouse his patriotism through service to his community with flag displays, sales and donations. More information is available at healingfield.org.
Jennifer Weavor is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer from Orem. She is the mother of three children and daughter of Vietnam KIA Sgt. 1st Class James C. Jensen, D Co, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cav Division.
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