Space is a little tight where Mary Magahay manages the American Legion Auxiliary Poppy Program.
Keeping her air conditioning running, Magahay’s small office at the Hampton VA Medical Center’s campus is the hub of a massive distribution effort. There, volunteers and veterans from the region and neighboring states pick up kits to assemble thousands of crepe-paper poppies.
As thousands are sent out, thousands more finished poppies come back to the hub. From there, they are mailed to other American Legions nationally — ready to be shared with the public, via donations, to honor the fallen.
Before the pandemic, volunteers produced anywhere from 350,000 to 500,000 annually.
“We were shut out of here for 13 months. The veterans couldn’t bring the poppies in here,” Magahay said, who works with her husband, Dan Magahay, an Army veteran. “Naturally, we had no other place to set it up. This is important to the people that make the poppies because it gives them extra income. It’s not a great deal of money, but it helps them.”
The program is among a few — the clothing room and the Christmas shop, for example — that volunteers, like Magahay with the auxiliary unit of the American Legion Post 48 Phoebus have been doing in the community for decades.
Last month, the Hampton City Council OK’d a use permit to allow the Phoebus-based post to build new headquarters at 114 Mallory Street, near Lancer Street. The post’s headquarters were at 221 E. Mellen Street, but the organization sold it to the Hampton-based hospitality brand, Simply Panache Groupe.
“It was a beautiful building, but in this day and time we only have so many active members. When you have 28 active members in a huge building, it just doesn’t work,” says Alison Schmidt, a volunteer with the post’s American Legion Auxiliary. “(Moving is) like a new start. We have a lot of history.”
The post’s presence in Phoebus dates to the mid-1940s. It was on Mallory Street back then and at one time its headquarters were where a McDonald’s now stands, just off the entrance ramp to Interstate 64 west. The post later moved to Mellen Street, but all the room , including a grand ball room, was more than the group needed.
The group had to rent out the space for weddings and other parties to pay for the overhead, but that became challenging as the membership thinned. Schmidt told the Hampton council they believe the proposed building will fit in well with the historic neighborhood’s character.
“We hope to grow. We hope to get some young blood in there because we do know we need to support our efforts,” she said.
For 15 years, Magahay and her husband have been meeting weekly at the Hampton VA to run the Poppy Program, which started back up in April after its pandemic hiatus. The money raised from distributing the poppies to the public, via posts, other units, churches, can rake in some $300,000 annually, Magahay said. Those funds go back to the main offices of the American Legion Auxiliary in Richmond or to other state affiliated offices and are used for the veterans, active duty and their families.
“The amount (of poppies brought back) since we were allowed back in the VA, is less than 55,000,” Magahay said, adding that one veteran had 13,000 poppies made from the previous year that he was waiting to bring back. Right now, there are six volunteers that make the poppies. “Hopefully by next year this time, our country will be more back to normal.”
It’s a delicate craft, and it can take hours to make thousands, but the symbol is one that is dear to the hearts of many veterans. During World War I, across war-ravaged landscapes in Europe, a remarkable occurrence happened. Fields of poppies, red and vibrant, sprung up among the graves of soldiers buried in the battlefields located in western Belgium, France and other spots.
Lt. Col. John McCrae, M.D., who served on the front lines and wrote a poem called “In Flanders Fields,” capturing the spectacle and the sentiment many felt. Following the war, veterans’ organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion adopted the poppy as its official symbol.
“Poppies became the symbol of the living and more so to remember the people who didn’t make it,” Magahay said.
Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, email@example.com