This Memorial Day, Poppy is honored to partner with Memorial Day Flowers, an organization that coalesces businesses from all over the world to commemorate fallen soldiers. Their work provides comfort to Gold Star families with donated fresh flowers to help them honor their loved ones this weekend. Poppy will sponsor a section of Arlington National Cemetery and will be sending a team to place roses on the headstones and hand out flowers this year.
It’s a monumental undertaking, and it’s impressive to see so many people coming together for this shared goal. For me, the connection between Memorial Day and flowers is natural, but it’s also deeply personal.
The United Nation of Flowers
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to study with floral master Gregor Lersch at his nursery in Germany. I met designers from Iran, Egypt, Japan, Russia, France, Romania, England, and, of course, I met many lovely Germans in the town. Toward the end of the workshop, someone asked Gregor why he hosted such time-consuming and expensive workshops, at a price that may only let him break even on the cost. I will never forget Gregor’s answer: that his ancestors, Germany’s ancestors, did terrible things, and he has spent his life trying to atone for those atrocities by bringing people together in peace instead of separating them with war. He saw his work as a means of healing, contributing joy, education, and creation to the world. His goal, he said, was to create a “United Nations of Flowers.”
I had left the U.S. for Gregor’s workshop on Memorial Day, and I thought, as I do every Memorial Day, of my great uncle Johnny Sprague. That year, I was exactly the age that Johnny had been when he was killed in World War II, in Italy, by a grenade thrown by German troops.
The WWII Captain Quarterback
I learned about Johnny from his brother Charlie, my grandfather, who also served in the war — in the South Pacific, where he stayed safe and returned home alive. My grandfather was a successful man who lived a good life. But as accomplished as he was, whenever he spoke of his brother Johnny, he would say that Johnny was a much better man than him, and if he had lived, he would have surely gone on to do more important things. He thought that Johnny had it in him to become a serious leader; maybe even President.
Johnny was a great athlete; he led his football team at SMU to the Rose Bowl in 1937 — the team wouldn’t reach the Rose Bowl for another 70 years. In the war, he earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart for gallantry in action by storming the beach at Salerno and drawing enemy machine gun fire so that his regiment could locate enemy troops. In one recounting of his death, after taking fatal enemy fire from above and visibly bleeding, he turned to a fellow soldier and said, "I have a little headache. I wish I had some aspirin."
It’s painful to reflect on Johnny’s life and wonder what might have been if he had survived the war. That his life was cut short so early seemed deeply unfair. But in Gregor’s workshop in Cologne, I reflected on all the healing that had happened since his death. It seemed that if the great niece of an American soldier who died in WWII could, only two generations later, spend a week in Germany learning and creating beauty with a German descendant of the wartime generation, then somehow the forward march of time was bringing us all to a better place.
The Family His Sacrifice Preserved
One year later, I got a Facebook message from a man named Brian in West Texas. He asked me if I was Charlie Sprague’s granddaughter. Johnny Sprague, he told me, was Brian’s grandfather’s dear friend in the war. He told me that my great uncle John was outspoken that fathers shouldn’t be soldiers, and should be allowed to go home to take care of their families instead of fighting abroad.
Brian’s grandfather had a wife and two children at home in West Texas on their farm, but he stormed the beach of Salerno with Johnny, and was in the foxhole with him when a grenade came flying in. Johnny jumped on it to save Brian’s grandfather’s life.
He became a prisoner of war when the German troops took the beach back, but he survived, and after he came back to Texas, his wife gave birth to Brian’s father, whose own wife years later gave birth to Brian. He lived because of Johnny’s bravery.
“I must study war so that my grandchildren can study beauty”
Every Memorial Day, I’m reminded of the lines President John Adams wrote to his wife in 1780 at the birth of our nation: “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music.”
Johnny and many, many other very brave men and women through the decades have laid down their lives to preserve a peaceful world where it is possible for beauty, creativity, and friendship to be shared across borders, across languages, across generations. We inherit their legacy with a responsibility to make the most of our talents for a more beautiful, equitable, peaceful world.
This weekend, we will honor their sacrifice at Arlington National Cemetery with the symbol of beauty, unity and peace we know best: flowers. From our team to you, wishing all of our Poppy community a healthy and safe Memorial Day.