Ramblin' Rhodes

Stroll down memory lane with music columnist Don Rhodes.

Ramblin' Rhodes: 'Poppy Lady' started tradition of red paper memorials

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Tyler Hubbard, of the duo Florida Georgia Line – which is headed to Lake Olmstead Stadium on June 13 – isn’t the only internationally famous person to come out of Monroe, Ga., just off Interstate 20 near Athens.

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In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 3-cent commemorative stamp with Moina Michael's likeness.  NATIONAL WOMEN'S HISTORY MUSEUM/SPECIAL
NATIONAL WOMEN'S HISTORY MUSEUM/SPECIAL
In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 3-cent commemorative stamp with Moina Michael's likeness.

Another is a woman named Moina Belle Michael, who is a perfect example of how one person can start a movement that can change the world.

She was born southeast of Good Hope, Ga., and taught school classes in Monroe and later Athens. She is buried in Rest Haven Cemetery in Monroe in a family plot.

I became aware of her when I lived in Chamblee, Ga., near Atlanta and frequently visited the Georgia State Capitol building. There, I would often see a white marble bust of Michael that was unveiled in 1937, seven years before she died.

She was known as “The Poppy Lady” because she was the one who started the annual tradition of red paper poppies being sold throughout the world usually on Memorial Day weekend. They are distributed to remember the sacrifice of fallen soldiers and specifically are given by donations for disabled veterans and their dependents.

I thought of her on Friday, May 23, when I spent five hours in front of the North Augusta Kroger store helping the women’s auxiliary unit of the Jesse C. Lynch Memorial American Legion Post 71 sell red paper poppies as they have done for decades.

And I told many people that afternoon the story of how a Georgia woman began the tradition of the red paper poppy sales. Almost no one, including dozens of veterans of several wars from many states, had ever heard of her.

In 1918, Michael was working at the training headquarters for overseas YWCA workers located at Columbia University in New York City. She took time out one day to read the November issue of the Ladies Home Journal that had been put on her desk.

She saw that a page had been marked that featured a poem then titled We Shall Not Sleep written by Canadian Army officer John McCrae. The poem, later retitled In Flanders Fields, had the words, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row.”

Michael was inspired from reading that poem to begin wearing a red poppy to remember fallen veterans. Then she got others to do the same.

That led to the poppies being sold with the money to be used specifically for disabled veterans of World War I and their dependents.

From there, the movement grew to disabled veterans making the red paper poppies. I was told the ones we were selling that Friday had been made by disabled veterans in Virginia.

The movement spread internationally and Michael ended up being on the faculty of the University of Georgia for 25 years teaching classes of disabled veterans. She visited Augusta several times usually for functions connected with American Legion posts or other veterans’ activities.

Just before her death, she estimated the annual poppy sales had resulted in more than $125 million raised internationally.

“No financial gain ever came to her,” it was reported by the Associated Press.

She died in Athens General Hospital on May 10, 1944. That was the month before the D-Day invasion.

Two weeks before her death at 74, she had completed making 300 paper poppies by hand. Her coffin was draped by an American flag that she had sewed herself.

After her death, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her memory and a Liberty Ship during WWII carried her name. The Georgia General Assembly also designated the stretch of U.S. Highway 78 between Athens and Monroe as “The Moina Michael Highway.”

So the next time you run into veterans and auxiliary women selling paper red poppies to help disabled veterans and their families, think about Moina Michael of Monroe, Ga.

BACK TO FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE: Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, known as Florida Georgia Line, will be in Augusta at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 13, at Lake Olmstead Stadium.

Texas-born singer and rapper Nelly and North Carolina-born country newcomer Chris Lane will open the show.

Tickets cost $39.75 and are available through ticketfly.com. A limited number of tickets are for sale in person only at the Augusta GreenJackets box office. Call (706) 736-7889 to check on availability.

FIRST FRIDAY BOOK SIGNING: If you’re downtown in Augusta for First Friday look for me signing copies of my new book, Legendary Locals of Augusta, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, June 6, at the Book Tavern, 936 Broad St., in the old J.B. White’s building.

MILITARY EXHIBIT IN THOMSON: The McDuffie Museum, 121 Main St., in Thomson, Ga., has just opened its summer exhibit of American, Nazi and Japanese military artifacts including several uniforms, rifles, guns, recruitment posters, etc.

The exhibit focuses on the observances of Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, D-Day Invasion and Independence Day. Visit mcduffiemuseum.com or call (706) 595-9923 for details.

ROBERT EARL KEEN HEADING BACK: Americana artist Robert Earl Keen will be back at Imperial Theatre for a show at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 18.

Tickets cost $15, $20 and $24. Call the box office at (706) 722-8341, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays or order online at imperialtheatre.com.


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