Red poppies are sold by veterans to commemorate all the soldiers who have died since World War I, and at 90 years old Whitestone resident Jack Lombardi has been pedaling the flowers for about half his life.
The World War II vet is a fixture at the Whitestone Shopping Center, where for 45 years he has consistently parked himself at a small table there, bringing a packed lunch.
“I know I’m doing it for a good cause,” Lombardi said. “But I’m also doing it for my buddies. That’s the main thing.”
Lombardi served in the U.S. Navy for three years during World War II, where he was stationed in the Pacific Theater aboard the repair vessel USS Jason.
Many of his friends have not enjoyed the longevity the sprightly grandfather has, but he continues to sell the poppies to honor both them and his fellow vets.
“It helps the vets and, in our post, we have a lot of old men who have Social Security but no pension,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi joined the VFW’s Whitestone Post 4787after he returned home from the war. He married his wife and moved to what he said was, at the time, the countryside of Whitestone. He raised five children and worked for the New York City Transit Authority for 30 years before retiring.
But that has not slowed him down.
On Friday, Lombardi was preparing to head to Citi Field, which he calls Shea Stadium purely out of habit, to sell poppies, an international symbol of fallen soldiers.
During the Second Battle of Ypres in World War I, a Canadian doctor and soldier named Col. John McCrae presided over the burial of a friend who was killed on the battlefield in modern day Belgium.
McCrae noticed how the red poppies grew quickly on the site of freshly dug graves and penned the poem “In Flanders Field” shortly afterward.
The poppy grew to represent dead soldiers from all wars, and the tradition has stuck.
On Monday, Lombardi was at the Whitestone Memorial Day Parade, with his trusty bag of poppies around his neck.
His wife of 65 years can often be found at his side, although the couple ventures of out their house less and less as they get older.
The cash Lombardi collects goes straight to his post, where it is then given out to veterans in need, disabled veterans and patients at the St. Alban’s VA Hospital, for instance.
Lombardi is one of the few vets in the area who still sells the poppies as often as he can.
Before, he said, they would take carloads of people to Citi Field or churches in the area, but now the post is lucky to get two or three people to go, he said.
“I like it. I meet nice people,” Lombardi said.
But there is no denying the fact that the post is not gaining new members.
Lombardi is not sure why veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are not joining the posts, but for as long as he is able, Whitestone residents will find him at the shopping center, continuing to help his comrades 65 years after he returned home to American soil.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.
©2012 Community News Group
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