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Peony blooms as tribute to fallen WWII airman

It's hard to imagine a single peony plant in west Wichita holding so much meaning this Memorial Day.

But the peony that has bloomed in Rose Wilson's yard in Reflection Ridge this spring is a tribute to veterans, and especially to her Uncle "Jules" Fitz, who bought it from afar while serving in New Guinea in World War II.

The flowers that 1st Lt. Julius Fitz favored — peonies — are the traditional flower of Memorial Day. His family went on to harvest the flowers from his peony plants for a couple of decades after his death for Memorial Day bouquets.

Rose's peony is also a testament to the healing benefits of gardening. Fitz's comrades gravitated to a garden he kept behind his tent while serving in New Guinea, and his mother found solace in her garden after he was shot down over New Guinea in 1943. Fitz had been a navigator on a Liberator bomber.

I like to hear Rose Wilson, the niece who lives in Reflection Ridge, tell the story of her uncle's peony in her own words:

"What makes the plant special is that it is among the last of the plants purchased by my Uncle Jules while he was stationed in New Guinea.

"Uncle Jules graduated from the University of Illinois in 1941 with a degree in floriculture. While in New Guinea he planted several gardens behind his tent and was anxious to plan his future, so he sent $100 to his professor at the University of Illinois, Dr. Weinard, to select the varieties of peony plants and ship them to his parents' home in Independence, Kansas.

"When my grandparents received the plants, they of course made it their mission to plant them and eventually harvest the flowers. Grandma Fitz and my older siblings would cut the buds and store them in a walk-in cooler. They would take the buds out before Memorial Day and sell them at my father's little grocery store for $1 a dozen. The money from the sale of the flowers would then go to the Lutheran Church for their mission project.

"Julius A. Fitz was shot down over Dobodura, New Guinea, on Nov. 28, 1943. He was buried in New Guinea until 1949. He was awarded the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart. After the war his body was brought back to Independence for burial. It wasn't easy, but apparently my grandmother was persistent. Several of his peony plants were planted around his grave."

Here is part of what was written in the Illini Florograph newsletter by the Floriculture Club at the University of Illinois in announcing his death:

"Jules loved his flowers. He wrote to us frequently, and to read his description of the zinnias, marigolds, petunias and verbenas blooming in his border on the hillside in back of his tent in New Guinea proved that he was a true floriculturist. He also mentioned the thrill that his buddies, who had never grown plants or who previously had shown no interest in plants, got from watching his little garden develop."

Back to Rose's story, and the aftermath of her Uncle Jules' death:

"My grandmother grieved the loss of the one son who shared her love for gardening. One son became a Lutheran minister, and the other two boys followed the family tradition of running family-owned grocery stores.

"Her way of coping was to garden. She made sure that the pastor's family and everyone around her had plenty of fresh vegetables and fresh eggs. Even though she lived in the 'city' she had chickens, and each chicken was named after one of her 13 grandchildren."

The peony story doesn't end there. We pick it up in recent times:

"My older brother Albert and sister Carol were almost arrested last summer trying to retrieve what they thought was the sole surviving peony plant. My grandmother's house and garden had fallen into disrepair, and the owner was using the property to store junk. My sister was determined to bring the plant to me so I could care for it (everyone thinks that since my name is Rose I must have a green thumb). Carol is the one who was most involved with my grandmother in selling the flowers for what was then called Decoration Day.

"Well, the neighbor called the landlord who lives up the block, and he came roaring down demanding to know what they are doing on his property. ... When they finally told the story to the landlord he was touched and went and got a shovel and dug the plant up for them. I have a picture of the roots, which I never dreamed would blossom into such a beautiful plant."

Two more plants have since been discovered at the old Independence homestead, and Rose has asked the current owner for permission to dig those, too.

"As keeper of my uncle's legacy, my goal would be to eventually divide the plants and give them to the other nieces and nephews, although they are spread all over the United States."

The story continues...

"I would also encourage others to stop this Memorial Day and talk to members of the Greatest Generation(as Tom Brokaw termed them) before they are all gone. Their stories of sacrifice abroad and the sacrifice of those left behind are incredible."

And an inspiration for those of us who now continue the story.