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Obituaries

Thomas Demski, 72; Owned Largest U.S. Flag

January 22, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was so devoted to Old Glory that he has been dubbed Old Glorious.

Thomas "Ski" Demski, who owned the world's largest flag, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and also had the Stars and Stripes tattooed on his torso, painted on his house and flying from the 132-foot flagpole in his frontyard, has died. He was 72.

Demski, a disabled coal miner and construction worker and recovering alcoholic who supported himself by making Mylar bumper stickers touting 12-step programs to combat addiction, died Saturday at his Long Beach duplex.

No specific cause of death was known, but Demski had undergone multiple bypass surgery; suffered from heart disease, diabetes and gangrene; and told a Times columnist Dec. 30 that "I'm just waiting to roll over and die."

Super Flag, as Demski called his largest version of Old Glory, made specifically to capture the Guinness designation, cost $80,000, weighs 3,000 pounds and measures 255 feet by 505 feet. It was inaugurated on June 14--Flag Day--1992 when it was unfurled on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

The giant national banner also was displayed at Hoover Dam as the Olympic torch was carried across in 1996. Winds ripped it in three places during that outing, including one 90-foot gash. The repairs, made by a Huntington Beach sail and boat cover company in a blimp hangar at the Tustin Marine base, cost $5,000.

Somewhat sadly, Demski recently put Super Flag on the market for $100,000, worried that it had not been flown frequently enough.

But he owned many, many more. Demski followed Super Flag Jr.--a mere 47 feet by 82 feet--down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital a year ago as the only official California entry in the inaugural parade for President George W. Bush.

The 100-pound banner, which Demski had made in 1981 to salute the return of American hostages from Iran, was carried aloft on 13 poles held by 55 Navy ROTC cadets as another cadet pushed Demski's wheelchair along the 1.8-mile parade route.

A self-described political independent who repeatedly ran for Long Beach mayor and City Council seats, Demski told The Times at the inaugural, "Yes, I voted for Bush.... I'm just thrilled to death to be representing California and with Super Flag Jr.''

Demski and his giant flags gained newfound popularity across the country after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Regularly borrowed for Super Bowls, college bowl games, other sports events and veterans parades, the giant flags provided through Demski's Super Flag company were snapped up to cover the field at Dodger Stadium for the first home game and the Rose Bowl field for UCLA's first football game after the disaster. In October, the ailing Demski traveled to ground zero in New York to fly one of his giant flags from a construction crane.

Demand grew so much that the Web site www.superflag.com run by Demski and his close friend, former Coast Guard commander Jim Alexander, had to be expanded at considerable expense to them. Never profitable, the enterprise cost plenty transporting the flags for display.

Even before Sept. 11 led many Americans to embrace patriotism, Demski said that in his two decades of owning and unfurling flags across the country, he never had any flags vandalized.

"The flag, I guess, is one thing everyone understands," he said in December.

Born and reared in Nanticoke, Pa., where he began working in the coal mines as a teenager, Demski moved to Southern California in the 1970s. After a back injury disabled him from his construction job, he found time for patriotism.

Flags became Demski's raison d'etre about 1980 when he was driving along the San Diego Freeway and saw a giant flag flying outside an automobile dealership.

"I thought, that really looks good," he recalled. "I thought, why not try that?"

So he drove home and erected the $16,000, 132-foot flagpole--designated The Pole in honor of his Polish heritage--and began buying flags.

As his hair whitened, he started playing Santa Claus at Christmas and many years converted the flagpole into a giant Christmas tree.

He also staged patriotic celebrations on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and other holidays, evolving into one of Long Beach's best-known characters.

Not everybody loved Demski's preoccupation with flags in those days. The Long Beach City Council tried to impose a height limit, saying his flagpole was too tall for a residence. Demski countered by proposing to replace it with a 300-foot pole. They let the existing one stand.

A neighbor took him to court over the noise made by his giant flag flapping through the night. His supporters rallied, and that complaint also went glimmering.

Demski did not stop with fabric flags. He painted flags on his house, on his collection of hearses, trailers, a firetruck, and inside his house on the walls, floor and light switches.

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