From crayons to Capitol advocacy, a Minnesota flag enthusiast nears moment of triumph

A man folds a flag.
Lee Herold, owner of Herold Flags in Rochester, folds a historic Minnesota flag in his store Wednesday. Herold has been advocating for a new Minnesota State flag for decades.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

To say that 78-year-old Lee Herold has had flags on his mind for a long time would be an understatement.

“I used to take my mother’s towels and use colored crayons and make flags,” said Herold, who stood in his colorful and crowded flag store near downtown Rochester in early December. “She was very tolerant.”

When it comes to flag design, Herold has been very tolerant of the state. He’s patiently been asking legislators to come up with a better flag for decades. 

A man holds a flag up.
Lee Herold, owner of Herold Flags in Rochester, has been advocating for a new Minnesota state flag for decades.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Very soon, he’ll finally get his wish. This week, the State Emblem’s Redesign Commission will attempt to slim down the six finalists to one design. Herold is eager to see which one makes the final cut. 

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He’s been watching deliberations in St. Paul closely, even testifying at a key meeting last month. Commission members invited him to offer his perspective, introduced by Chair Luis Fitch as an expert who has “been talking about flags for so many years, and we’re very happy to have him here today.”

“I am extremely happy to be here,” Herold began. “It has been practically a lifelong dream of mine to address the state flag.”

With parted silver hair and rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, Herold takes on a professoral aura when discussing the banners of cities, states, countries and other entities.

At the commission meeting, he rose to his feet to show off examples from a pile of flags — good and bad — he brought with to illustrate his thoughts and the stories behind each.

“I don’t do PowerPoints,” he said. “I used to do slides and things. But flags are visual symbols, and it works better if you actually have a flag.”

A display of miniature flags on display.
Flags of many nations and states are available at Herold Flags in Rochester.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

CPA to flag purveyor

And does he have flags. He’s owned Herold Flags since the early 1990s, when he gave up his career as an accountant to become a flag purveyor.

Here, you can find the American flag, but also the red, yellow and green Sri Lankan flag (one of Herold’s favorites), the Rochester city flag (not one of Herold’s favorites) and hundreds more from all over the world. 

But even before he opened his shop, Herold was asking state legislators to change the state’s current flag.

“It’s kind of muddled. There’s just too much on it,” he said. “There’s so many elements on it. You really can’t focus on it.”

Because of that, it’s not very popular, he said. It’s also problematic because of its depiction of a Native American appearing to ride off into the sunset when indigenous people lived in Minnesota long before Europeans arrived. 

Herold said the best flags evoke a sense of pride of place. 

“Probably the biggest celebration that the state’s ever had is when the twins won the World Series [in 1987],” he recalled. “And you look at other states where they have big celebrations like that. There’s a sea of the state flag. And there weren’t any state flags there.”

A hand rests on the current Minnesota state flag.
Lee Herold, owner of Herold Flags in Rochester, talks about the differences in a Minnesota flag adopted in 1957-1983 and the one in use today. Herold has been advocating for a new Minnesota State flag for decades.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

‘A touch of home’

Creating connection through imagery is among the most satisfying parts of owning his flag shop, Herold said. In Rochester, so many people come from all over the country and the world for care at Mayo Clinic. 

“They come in and they're distressed, and they’re away from home in a different culture,” he said. “They’ve got problems and they see their flag and you can see the tears welling up in their eyes. That's the touch of home. Flags mean that much.”

It’s no surprise, he said, that the American flag is flown during times of national distress for the same reasons.

Herold didn’t want to comment specifically on any of the six finalists

But he noted that all share a star design, a symbol that gestures to Minnesota’s nickname The North Star state, and an emblem that’s easily recognized and well liked. And he’s pleased with the state’s new seal, which features a loon.

Herold said he’ll sell the new flag once it’s available — and the old one, too, which he’s seen a surge in demand for since the state said it would phase it out soon.

For Herold, it feels good to see the state take flag design as seriously as he always has. 

“If the commission comes up with a flag that becomes popular, I’d be really pretty happy,” he said. “That was my real goal all along.”