‘Poppy Lady’ helped us to remember

egrisamore@macon.comMay 25, 2014 

Moina Belle Michael, a native of the community of Good Hope, had the idea to use poppies as a symbol of remembrance during World War I.


I have never read or heard “In Flanders Fields” that I do not think of my father.

It was his favorite poem. He recited it often. The words found my heart so many times I had it memorized by the time I started the seventh grade.

It called my name again last Thursday at a prayer breakfast.

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.

It was written 99 years ago this month by a Canadian physician named John McCrae. Perhaps that is one reason the poem appealed to my dad.

McCrae was a lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Army during World War I. My father was an officer and physician in the Navy in both World War II and Vietnam.

McCrae wrote the poem on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow soldier named Alexis Helmer, who was killed on a battlefield in western Belgium.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row.

I took many memorable trips with my father. But one of my biggest regrets came during a trip to Belgium following my senior year in college. We flew to Brussels and rode a train in search of the fields of Flanders.

There is an American cemetery and memorial on the southeast edge of Waregem. We never found it. The deeper we traveled into the Belgian countryside, the more difficult the language barrier became. We didn’t have a translator and could not understand any of the signs.

Frustrated, we finally gave up. I’m not sure I ever saw my father more disappointed than he was that day.

I read “In Flanders Fields” at my father’s memorial service on Nov. 26, 2006. My voice was choked with emotion. I don’t know how I got through it.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields

I recently received a note from Aliene Warchak, of Macon, with information about a woman named Moina Belle Michael.

I had never heard of this impressive lady, and many of you are probably not familiar with her either.

But there is a marble bust of her at the state Capitol in Atlanta. After she died 70 years ago this month, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor.

During World War II, a liberty ship was named after her. And a stretch of U.S. 78 between Athens and Monroe bears her name.

She is best known as the “Poppy Lady.” She was an educator, and it was her idea to use poppies as a symbol of remembrance during World War I. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the “Great War.” More than 9 million people lost their lives in that conflict.

Michael was born and raised in the tiny community of Good Hope in Walton County. (Once you follow Riverside Drive out of Macon to Juliette and hang a right on Ga. 83, you can be there in an hour.)

She was born in 1869, four years after the Civil War. She died in 1944, a year before the end of World War II.

But she is mostly associated with World War I, and the title of her autobiography is “The Miracle Flower: The Story of the Flanders Field Memorial Poppy.”

Her teaching career began when she was 15. She taught the neighbors of children in an old slave cabin. At the start of the war in 1914, she was a professor at the University of Georgia. She traveled in Europe and was distressed by the events taking place there. When she returned home, she did everything from knit warm clothes, cook meals and collect items for the war effort.

After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, she took a leave of absence from UGA and moved to New York, where she volunteered at a training headquarters for YWCA Overseas War Secretaries.

In November 1918, on the Saturday before the Armistice, she read McCrae’s poem for the first time. It had been reprinted in an issue of Ladies Home Journal. The poem was titled “We Shall Not Sleep” before being renamed “In Flanders Fields.”

Michael was transfixed by the last verse of what is now one of history’s famous war poems. She began wearing poppies as a tribute to the fallen soldiers. Because of her campaign, the poppy was adopted as a worldwide symbol of remembrance.

After the war, Michael returned to UGA and taught a class of disabled veterans. She later sold artificial poppies to raise funds for veterans, and the American Legion adopted the poppy as a symbol. At the time of her death, more than $200 million had been raised through flower sales.

I never knew any of this. I wonder if my father did.

On this Memorial Day, I will remember all those who gave their lives to defend our freedoms.

And I will pay a special remembrance to the Poppy Lady, who once lived among us and made sure they will never be forgotten.

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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