Rocky Vaughan waited at his wife’s hospital bed for days as the couple expected the birth of their second son, Brody, in March 2013.
To kill some time, Vaughan brought his sketchbook. As he doodled purposelessly, he thought of the debate he had seen on TV surrounding the then-Mississippi state flag, which boasted the Confederate battle emblem in its canton.
“It’s just an ugly topic. … I don’t want to seem like an advocate for each side,” he said. “But I am a designer. So I can let everybody see, you can have a pretty flag, you don’t have to be so upset about (it).”
Intrigued, he began sketching a magnolia as he waited. That process, he said, would sometimes annoy his wife.
“Me sitting in the corner would get on her nerves, so she sent me home a few times,” he said with a chuckle. “Apparently, my sketching is a little too noisy.”
Since his first try at redesigning the state flag seven years ago, Vaughan — a 43-year-old Ackerman native and graphic designer at DogPound Printing in Starkville — said he has produced more than 100 different designs. And now, he is closer than ever to making history.
Vaughan is a co-designer of “The New Magnolia Flag” — one of the two finalists that could become the state’s new flag — after the Mississippi Legislature retired the old one on June 30. One of his own designs — featuring a navy background, red horizontal banners and a magnolia surrounded by 20 stars (representing Mississippi becoming the 20th state) — was one of the nine finalist flags selected by the newly formed Mississippi State Flag Commission. It also includes the words “In God We Trust,” which the Legislature has required for flag design submissions.
The commission — consisting of nine members appointed by Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn — began accepting flag designs from the public in July with an Aug. 1 deadline. Over the past month, the commission narrowed down a field of more than 3,000 submissions to two finalists — “The Great River Flag” and “The New Magnolia Flag.”
Commissioners will meet Sept. 2 to make a final selection, which will appear on the November ballot. The design will become the new state flag if approved by the majority of voters. Otherwise, the commission must reconvene and redesign the flag for voter approval in a special election in 2021.
After submissions opened this summer, Vaughan submitted four designs. All of them feature a white magnolia in the middle with emerald green leaves, the color of which symbolizes the state gemstone, he said.
He called them “Miss Maggie” — “Miss” for Mississippi and “Maggie” as a nickname for magnolia.
Vaughan wanted to submit four more designs before the deadline. In one of those designs, Vaughan colored the entire flag emerald green. A ring of 82 gold stars surrounds the flower pedals, representing 82 counties in the state, with an outside layer of 20 stars.
But Vaughan never could submit them. His 66-year-old mother, Beverly Vaughan, passed away on July 31 due to illness. Grieving, Vaughan missed the deadline.
“She was really sweet,” he said of his mother.
But Vaughan knows his mother would be proud of his work. As his illustrations advanced among a pool of 3,000 submissions, Vaughan said he was never surprised by how far his designs would go. Some of his competitors, he said, are “overthinking it.”
“It makes sense,” he said of his own work being a top candidate. “I’m not even trying to be cocky or overconfident. … What is the best representation of the Magnolia State? Duh. You don’t need research. All you’ve got to do is to make it pretty.”
But Vaughan put a great deal of work into his design. He said he took almost every advice from vexillologists (those who study flags and symbolism) on social media and tried to follow every rule from the State Flag Commission to perfect his designs. He constantly wondered: Should the stripes be horizontal or vertical? How many colors should there be? How about a seal in the middle?
Still, he is hardly satisfied. “The New Magnolia Flag” — which is a combination of elements from three different designers, including Vaughan — is not his favorite, he said. The flag features two vertical gold stripes, one on each side. The gold lines symbolize the state’s rich cultural history, according to the website of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, but Vaughan is not a fan.
“It didn’t need (the stripes),” he said. “Tone it down. It’s going to look like McDonald’s up there.”
Vaughan agreed he can be a bit of a perfectionist. And Stephanie Welch, his coworker and friend of more than a decade, shared a similar view.
“He’s constantly amazing with his art design,” she said. “(Customers) will have an idea but not know what they want or don’t have a picture. … He goes above and beyond everything we could dream of.”
Welch said she is happy to see Vaughan’s work recognized.
“I honestly think they couldn’t have chosen a more deserving person’s design,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming for him that somebody recognizes his talent other than just us and our T-shirt customers.”
When commissioners make a final selection on Sept. 2, Vaughan said he hopes “The New Magnolia” prevails.
“At least I’m still part of it,” he said of the flag design. “I don’t trust anybody else to make it look pretty.”
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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