"The Poppy Lady" Moina Belle Michael: a legacy of helping veterans
By Sara Freehand
via the University of Georgia web site
It began with a simple idea from a University of Georgia professor — sell poppy flowers to raise money on behalf of soldiers killed and injured in World War I.
Now, nearly 100 years and billions of dollars later, the poppy has become the international symbol of remembrance and support for all military veterans, thanks to the tireless efforts of Moina Belle Michael, affectionately known today as "The Poppy Lady."
"During her lifetime, if you adjust for inflation, poppy sales raised $3 billion worldwide, most of which went directly to veterans," said Tom Michael, a great nephew of Moina Michael, who died in 1944. "She championed the poppy as a permanent symbol and reminder of our collective obligation to support our veterans and their families And through all the poppy sales around the world, her legacy of helping veterans lives on."
Moina Michael, an education professor from the small Georgia town of Good Hope, was in Germany on the final leg of a European vacation when World War I unexpectedly broke out in 1914 — forcing her to flee to Italy to find a ship that would carry her home.
After a harrowing 16-day trip through mine-infested waters and an ocean patrolled by enemy submarines, she returned to the relative quiet of her Athens, Georgia, home — but did not find peace. The nation was fixated on the war, and Michael did everything she could to bring comfort to soldiers awaiting deployment. She made sure soldiers were adopted by local families. She also set up a campaign for the families to write the soldiers while they were overseas.
"How busy everyone was kept back in those early days responding to and arousing others to respond to the superhuman struggles to win the war," Michael wrote in her autobiography. "I anguished for some power by which our boys might be saved from gas, bombs [and] shrapnel."
During the war, Michael volunteered with the National YMCA. It was while she was working for the war effort in New York that she was struck by a sudden inspiration.
A young soldier left a copy of Ladies Home Journal on her desk with a marked page containing Lt. Col. John McCrae's famous poem "In Flanders Fields," about the war's devastation.
"The last verse transfixed me," she wrote. "'To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.'"
On Nov. 9, 1918 — two days before the armistice that ended World War I — she wrote her own reply to McCrae's poem — entitled "We Shall Keep the Faith" — and decided "always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and emblem of 'keeping the faith with all who died.'"
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