The Buddy Poppy

During World War I, the fields in the Flanders region of Belgium were devastated.  Shells from heavy artillery fire blasted the earth, thrusting soil into the air.  As the soil enriched by the lime from rubble, fell back to the ground, it covered seeds of  the papaver rhoeas, a wild poppy.  Amid the craters left by the shelling, across the ravaged fields, and between the crosses of the graves of fallen soldiers, the poppies denied the war and sprang forth with life bursting into vivid red blooms.

Dr. John A. McCrae, a Lt. Colonel and physician with the Canadian Army witnessed much on the fields of  Flanders.  As a doctor, he saw wounded and mangled bodies, heard men screaming in anguish, and watched as the number of graves of his comrades multiplied.

After witnessing the death of his twenty-two year old friend in a field near Ypes, in May of 1915, McCrae wrote a poem, a French rondeau, “We Shall Not Sleep”.  McCrae’s lines were published seven months later, December 8, in Punch or the London Charivari, a British publication.  It touched the hearts of many people.  One of those was Miss Moina Belle Michaels.

Miss Michaels had grown up the daughter of affluent parents, John and Alice Wise Michaels, who were the owners of a cotton plantation in Georgia.  She received her early education at Braswell Academy followed by a stint at the Martin Institute in Jefferson, Georgia.  A couple of months before her sixteenth birthday in 1885, Moina returned home to Good Hope, her rural home that was suffering from economic difficulties.  Good Hope, like most of the South was still struggling to overcome the distress that had been brought on by the Civil War.  Cotton prices were low.

Taxes were high, and the community had not been able to pay a school teacher for a year.  Miss Michaels was convinced by her mother that she had been fortunate enough to have received a good education, and that she should pitch in and help the community by teaching school.  Her career as an educator began when she was only fifteen years old.

After she began teaching, things did not get better for the region.  Four years of droughts and floods caused crop failure and ruined machinery.  Mr. Michaels was forced to sell the plantation, and Moina accepted a teaching position in Monroe, Georgia.  The family moved, and Moina became the main source of income for the family, paying for their rent with her teaching salary.  From that time forward, Miss Michaels taught in several towns at a variety of levels:  town, county, state, and even church.  One of her teaching positions was at the Lucy Cobb Institute.  She also taught at the State Normal School, a teacher’s college, in Athens, Georgia.  She later studied in New York City at Columbia University.

In 1914, Miss Michaels visited the British Isles, Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland while on a tour of Europe.  She was touring in Cologne, Germany when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian Nationalist Gavrillo Princep.  Moina penned these words about the incident,  “the very foundations of our world were shaken by a radical student who threw a bomb into the carriage of an Austrian archduke”.  Little did she know that the world around her was erupting into world war.  On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia.  On August 3, they declared war on France.  The group with which she was traveling made their way to Rome where many other Americans were gathering to travel home by water, to avoiding crossing borders of nations at war in Europe.  To assist with the organizing of the Americans preparing for the trip home, Moina assumed the role of taking down details of each American seeking a way back home.  From the Hotel Royal lobby, she collated information for over 12,000 Americans in the first two weeks of her new role.  Finally time came for Moina to sail home.  She found passage on the RMS Carpathia, the same ship that had just two years earlier rescued survivors of the RMS Titanic.  Now it would rescue Moina from the violence of war.  After her safe return, Miss Michaels took a teaching position at Winnie Davis Memorial Hall of the Normal School, a teachers college and then at the University of Georgia in Athens.
The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917.  Moina, desiring to do her part, applied to serve the nation by doing war work with the YMCA.  However, lacking in medical training, she was not qualified to be a nurse.  She was also age forty-seven, ten years over the age limit for service with the YMCA efforts overseas.  When she received the first call which came in April 1818, to attend the YMCA Overseas Secretaries training in New York, she was very busy teaching at the Normal School in Athens, carrying out voluntary duties for the YMCA, and acting as Hostess at the Winnie davis Memorial Hall.  She and the school agreed that her leave to go to the training would be delayed.  Even though she declined the first call, she hoped to soon be serving the nation overseas.  Her hopes were short lived.  When she answered the second call she was forty-nine.  Her age prevented her from serving overseas.  However, the President of the organization helped Moina remain with the organization, granting her a job at the training headquarters.  She trained with the sixteenth YWCA Conference at Columbia University.
The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917.  Moina, desiring to do her part, applied to serve the nation by doing war work with the YMCA.  However, lacking in medical training, she was not qualified to be a nurse.  She was also age forty-seven, ten years over the age limit for service with the YMCA efforts overseas.  When she received the first call which came in April 1818, to attend the YMCA Overseas Secretaries training in New York, she was very busy teaching at the Normal School in Athens, carrying out voluntary duties for the YMCA, and acting as Hostess at the Winnie davis Memorial Hall.  She and the school agreed that her leave to go to the training would be delayed.  Even though she declined the first call, she hoped to soon be serving the nation overseas.  Her hopes were short lived.  When she answered the second call she was forty-nine.  Her age prevented her from serving overseas.  However, the President of the organization helped Moina remain with the organization, granting her a job at the training headquarters.  She trained with the sixteenth YWCA Conference at Columbia University.

Later in the day, Moina purchased some silk red poppies at Wanamakers, a local department store, and wore one on her lapel.  The clerk who sold her the flower was very moved, confiding in Miss Michael that her brother was one who slept in Flanders Fields.  People began requesting Moina to make poppies for them to wear.  Soon others began to follow in the wearing of poppies.

Across the Atlantic a short time later, in 1919, a French woman named Madame E. Guerin was also moved by McCrae’s poem and began launching her own effort to use the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.  Madame Guerin, already involved in efforts to help the families of servicemen as the founder of the American and French Children’s League, was concerned that those who lost their lives in Flanders Fields were being forgotten.  Madame E. Guerin began making contact with every serviceman’s organization she could requesting to speak to their organizations.  At each speaking engagement, her request was the same:  “Be it resolved that every member, if possible, and his or her family shall wear a silk red poppy.”

The idea was embraced by the people of France.  In Great Britain, the Prince of Wales sponsored the program.  Other nations joined in including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Cuba.  Each nation agreed to sell the poppies with proceeds dedicated to benefiting the children of France.

Madame Guerin came to the United States in April 1919 to speak in support of the “Victory Loan” financial assistance program whose goal was to help France’s homeless and jobless to get back on their feet.  While in the U.S., she urged the American Legion, a newly formed servicemen’s program, to sponsor the poppy program.  In 1920, at their second national convention, the American Legion, by a resolution, made the poppy the official flower of their organization.  However, delegates to the third convention repudiated the poppy and adopted another flower, the daisy, as their official flower.

At this point, Madame Guerin turned to the Veterans of Foreign Wars for assistance.  They agreed to take over the Poppy Project from the American Legion.  Before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW carried out their first nationwide distribution of the poppies in the United States and adopted the poppy as the official memorial flower of the VFW.

Even more progress for the program came in that same year when the Georgia State American Legion Convention adopted the red poppy as its official memorial flower and were successful in their plight to obtain an endorsement of the National Convention of the American Legion.  In 1921, the Auxiliary to the American Legion Convention came to the conclusion that disabled American war veterans could make the poppies.  Since that time, the poppy has been used as the flower to raise funds for disabled veterans of all wars. Servicemen proudly began wearing the poppies.  It was these men who gave the memorial poppies their nickname:  the Buddy Poppy.  In 1924, the VFW registered the name “Buddy Poppy” with the U.S. Patent Office, and a certificate granting all trademark rights was issued to them on May 20, 1924. The Buddy Poppies started being manufactured by disabled veterans at the Buddy Poppy factory located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Many times people hear that the poppies are sold.  However, the poppies are given away for a donation, regardless of the amount.

Little did anyone know that when Moina Michaels picked up that issue of Ladies Home Journal and made her vow to wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance that she would start a memorial tradition that would benefit so many.  In 1931, she was honored by the State of Georgia when they bestowed upon her the title “Distinguished Citizen of Georgia”.  In the Georgia State Capitol today, a marble bust which was unveiled in 1937 by the Georgia Department of the American Legion and its Auxiliary, is on display of Miss Michaels.  Throughout the years, Miss Michael’s creation of the Poppy Memorial Days have generated millions of dollars for the employment and rehabilitation of disabled servicemen.  Miss Michaels died on May 10, 1944, and already approximately $200,000,000 had be raised through the Buddy Poppy.  Shortly after her death the U.S. Government christened a “liberty ship” The Moina Michaels.  It was launched at Savannah, Georgia.  She was also honored with the printing of her picture on a three cent postage stamp, which was first issued in Athens, Georgia  on November 9, 1948, the same day she first wore a poppy in 1918, thirty years later.  The stamp recognized her role in originating the idea of the World War I memorial poppy.

The tradition has continued as each year around Memorial Day, Veterans of Foreign Wars members and American Legion Auxiliary volunteers distribute millions of the bright red poppies in exchange for contributions to assist disabled and hospitalized veterans. The poppy program provides multiple benefits to the veterans and to the community. Hospitalized veterans make the flowers and earn a small wage to supplement their incomes.  The work helps them feel more self-sufficient. There are physical and mental benefits, too.  The poppy program continues to remind people of the sacrifices of those who died.   It also reminds Americans of the needs of veterans and their families.  Because of the vow and work of Moina Michaels, The Poppy Lady, the poppy has become a recognized symbol of sacrifice and honor.

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