SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Until last month, George Key, 71, lived like most of us -- in relative anonymity.
It wasn't until the student government at Saddleback College voted to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance last semester that the mantle of his great-great grandfather, Francis Scott Key, fell upon him.
Now he's become, well, the Star-Spangled Man.
Mr. Key is being asked to speak at functions, to draft state Veterans of Foreign Wars resolutions, and to lead a patriotic charge for saying the Pledge in public.
"All of this is happening only because my name is Key," he said. "It wasn't my plan. But if I have to forgo some part of my retirement for some sort of true benefit to society, absolutely I would . . . because we all have some sort of designation in life."
What started as a campus debate has grown into a statewide crusade for Mr. Key. This week, as the country celebrated Flag Day, he not only wants the Saddleback students to start saying the Pledge again, he also wants a flag in every schoolroom. And he wants the Pledge recited in every school and at every public meeting in the state.
This became Mr. Key's calling in April when he urged his San Clemente VFW to withhold its $500 annual scholarship to Saddleback College until the student government reinstated the Pledge.
When news stories identified him as the patriotic heir of Francis Scott Key, his phone answering machine filled with messages like, "God Bless America. Go get 'em George."
Veterans' groups and Republican assemblies called too, many wooing him to speak. In May, state Assemblyman Bill Morrow offered to help draft legislation, if needed, to persuade the students to provide an opportunity to say the Pledge.
"I'm proud America produced a Francis Scott Key," Mr. Morrow said. "And I'm just as proud America produced a George Key."
Mr. Key was born in the Canal Zone in 1924. His parents named their first son Francis Scott Key, their second son Patrick Henry Key and their third son . . . Francis Scott Key, again! Weeks later, they had second thoughts and renamed him George Edward, after two English kings.
Patriotism and public service always have been Mr. Key's watchwords. He earned five Battle Stars in the Army during World War II, and later served many years as director of Glendale's Department of Water and Power. Since retiring, he has served as commander of the San Clemente VFW.
For a decade, he's flown his flag on Calle La Serna, where the Frauenzimmer family, descendants of Betsy Ross, were neighbors for a time.
"One year, on the Fourth of July, all the kids marched around with a flag," said Ron Pontius, who lives down the street. "We had a big festival, then went to George's porch to view the fireworks at the end of the pier."
The Key line stretches back through Mr. Key's father, Frank Murry Key, the Panama Canal steams-hoveling dredge man; his grandfather, Daniel Murry Key, a Confederate soldier; and Francis Scott Key Jr., one of 12 children of the lyricist.
"I don't think about it that much. It just kind of goes with me," George Key said. "You don't make a big deal of it."
The Pledge dispute centers on the political correctness of such words as "God" and "justice.'
The debate over whether to say the Pledge before student government meetings at Saddleback College began in January.
"We had a real diverse population," said Peyvand Saadatifard, 19, an officer in the Associated Student Government.
"If you're going to pledge one nation under God, why not one nation under Krishna, or one nation under Buddah . . . or Allah?" she asked. "And when the Pledge says, 'and justice for all,' I personally think it should say, 'in the search for justice,' because there is not justice for all."
College officials said the school is on vacation now but a new student government will grapple with the question in the fall.
In the meantime, Mr. Key has earned VFW support at the district level and will probably gain statewide support for new legislation when officers meet in August. Richard Pignone, state commander of the VFW, which boasts 122,000 members, said he will call a demonstration on the Saddleback campus if students don't reverse their decision.
In the next two weeks, Mr. Key will speak to the Newport Harbor Elks Lodge, the Jewish War Veterans of the United States and the South Orange County Republican Assembly about his crusade.
"Freedom is never free," he'll tell them. "Someone paid for it."