Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Day - Athens [GA] Banner-Herald - Moina Michael adopted poppy to memorialize soldiers


Published in the
Athens [GA] Banner-Herald on Sunday, October 28, 2001

Athens woman adopted poppy to memorialize, generate support for soldiers

By Nancy Bunker Bowen

The tireless efforts of Moina Belle Michael of Athens created one of the lasting symbols of the "Great War" - a red poppy first worn to memorialize American soldiers killed in World War I and later to raise millions of dollars to support and employ disabled American veterans of all wars.

The daughter of John and Alice Wise Michael, Moina was born in Walton County on Aug. 15, 1869. A teacher by profession, she taught in a number of area schools in the years before World War I before assuming duties in 1913 as social and religious director at the State Normal School in Athens and general secretary of its YMCA.

In Sept. 1918, she took a leave of absence from her position at the Normal School to serve at the training headquarters for overseas YMCA war workers at Columbia University in New York. Two days before the armistice was signed in November 1918 she read Canadian military doctor Colonel John McRae's poem "We Shall Not Sleep" which begins "In Flanders fields the poppies grow/between the crosses, row on row" and ends with the line "If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep."

Reading the poem was a spiritual experience for Moina Michael and inspired her to write her own response verse "We Shall Keep the Faith." At that moment Moina Michael made a personal pledge to "keep the faith" and vowed always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance. Later that day, she purchased a number of red silk poppies from a local department store and wore one in her lapel in memory of the war dead immortalized in McCrae's poem. Others soon followed her example, and a tradition began to grow.

During the winter of 1918 Michael continued working for the staff of the Overseas YMCA Secretaries and also visited wounded and sick men from Georgia who were in debarkation hospitals in and around New York City to find what more could be done for them. She returned to Athens in 1919 and taught a class of disabled servicemen at The University of Georgia. Learning about their needs firsthand gave her the impetus to widen the scope of the poppy as a memorial flower, developing its use to help all servicemen who needed help for themselves and their families, physically, spiritually or financially.

In 1920 the Georgia State American Legion Convention adopted the red poppy as its official memorial flower and succeeded in obtaining the endorsement of the National Convention of the American Legion in the fall of that year. The next year delegates at the Auxiliary to the American Legion Convention agreed that disabled American war veterans could make the poppies sold in the United States, thus generating much needed income for veterans who had no disability pensions or other income. Since that time, the red poppy has been sold too raise money for disabled veterans of all wars.

Moina Michael was honored by the state of Georgia as one of its most famous women. In 1931 the title "Distinguished Citizen of Georgia" was conferred on her for her work in creating a new enterprise in the United States, to the benefit of Georgia and nation. A marble bust of Moina Michael in the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol was unveiled in 1937 by the Georgia Department of the American Legion and its Auxiliary.

Moina Michael's creation of the Poppy Memorial Days made millions of dollars for the rehabilitation and employment of disabled servicemen. By the time of her death on May 10, 1944, approximately $200 million had been raised for the cause.

Just months after her death, the U. S. government christened a "liberty ship" The Moina Michael and launched it at Savannah. Moina Michael was one of only two Athenians honored by the issuance of a United States postage stamp. The 3-cent stamp, which recognized her role in originating the idea of the World War I memorial poppy, was first issued in Athens on Nov. 9, 1948.

Nancy Bunker Bowen, chairman of the Athens-Clarke County Bicentennial History Panel, has lived in Athens since 1966. Active in many community organizations, she is former assistant editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly and was co-chairman of "Athens Treasures: A Bicentennial Celebration by the Athens Historical Society."

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, October 28, 2001.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.