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OBITUARIES | Mildred Callahan Jones, 1943 - 2008

Banner maker sparked festive flags' popularity

January 25, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Mildred Callahan Jones, who inadvertently helped launch a national craze for decorative flags with the handmade "It's a Boy" banner she hung outside her home in 1975, has died. She was 64.

Jones, who became a pioneering manufacturer of the cheery pennants, died Jan. 17 at her Richmond, Va., home after a long illness, said her husband, Thomas. A diabetic, Jones had undergone quadruple-bypass surgery in 1998 and endured a series of strokes in 2002.

She tiptoed into the flag-making business in 1971 after marking her home with a bright banner so party guests could easily find it. A local reporter called to ask why Jones was flying a pillowcase from her second-story window.

Told that it was a "festive flag," the reporter asked: "What's the festive occasion?"

As relentlessly cheerful as the banners she became known for, Jones responded: "Life itself is a festive occasion."

Trained as a nurse, she started fielding orders for appliqued flags that were anything but red, white and blue. In spring, she sold lots of tulip and daffodil designs. Birds, hot-air balloons and tennis rackets were popular in summer. Fall brought requests for leaves and jack-o'-lanterns. Santa and other Christmas themes were winter favorites.

"We sold 200 the first year, and I thought we'd set the world on fire," Jones told the St. Petersburg Times in 1998.

The business took off after the birth of her only child, when her husband dashed home from the hospital to unfurl her all-time favorite: an image of a blue train with puffs of smoke that proclaimed, "It's a Boy."

The national media came calling, and flag fever took hold.

"She gave a new spark to an old industry and added a twist to it with the decorative flags and banners," Jeff Shaaber of Valley Forge Flag Co., a leading manufacturer of U.S. flags, said in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2002. "She's credited with starting a trend."

In trying to account for the flags' popularity, Jones told the Washington Post in 1996: "It's a way of expressing yourself without having to spend a fortune."

Another benefit: They required no watering and were an easy way to add color to the garden.

By 1977, her Festival Flags Unlimited had moved from the basement of her home to a building in downtown Richmond. A third of the 10,000 banners produced in 1995 were sold in Richmond. They typically cost $75 apiece.

Her company reportedly designed flags for actor Jack Lemmon and entertainer Carol Channing. The governor of Virginia ordered a flag for actor James Garner after he made a TV movie in Richmond. And NASA commissioned a flag to go up in space shuttle Discovery in 1985.

She was called "The Betsy Ross of Richmond," and mail arrived addressed simply to "The Flag Lady, Richmond, Va."

Critics often bristled at the chipper nylon creations and dismissed them as a yuppie fad. But the banner trend endured partly because more affordable imports began arriving in stores in the early 1990s.

Jones insisted that each of her flags be handmade in Richmond, and she responded to the mass-produced competition by emphasizing custom designs. One client was the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

At its peak in the mid-1990s, Festival Flags generated more than $1 million a year, but sales fell to about $100,000 a year by 2000. The overall industry crested at the same time, according to the North American Vexillogical Assn., a group of flag experts.

In failing health, Jones sold her business in 2003.

"I got started because I thought this was great fun," Jones once said. "And a great deal more has come out of it."

Mildred Callahan was born Sept. 19, 1943, in Chase City, Va., and grew up on a tobacco farm. She earned a nursing degree from what is now Virginia Commonwealth University.

While working as a nursing manager at the Medical College of Virginia she met her future husband, Thomas, a lawyer who became a judge.

They bought the first of two homes in Richmond in one of the largest remaining Victorian neighborhoods in North America.

Last weekend, neighbors up and down their historic street flew festive flags in honor of Jones. At the house where it all started, the new owners paid tribute with a light-blue banner that read, "It's a Boy."

In addition to her husband of 36 years, Jones is survived by her son, Jonathan, a filmmaker; mother Ida Mildred Callahan; and brother Rusty.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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