And as I came to know Polly, and came to recognize her many talents and interests, it became obvious that the one rising-to-the-top passion at this point in her life, was to publish a book that would tell the life story of Dr. Mary in a way that would inspire and inform present and future generations.
The first time I saw Polly was at a function at Woodstock Public Library. It was at one of those events where there are multiple, simultaneous programs throughout the library.
Polly was at the reference desk, autographing her book, “Situation Desperate: Send Chocolate.” A work of fiction, it is, according to Polly, quasi-autobiographical.
I purchased a copy, talked with Polly a few minutes, and decided that Woodstock was fortunate to have Polly in town.
After all, she’s been lots of other places — born in Massachusetts, spent many years in California, had very interesting careers. She was, and is, an actress, boasting parts in such movies as My Dog Skip and Déjà Vu, and still doing commercials and movie bit parts in the Atlanta area.
She is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. (Yes, she actually votes for the Oscars!) She is a long-time member of the Atlanta Chapter of The National League of American Pen Women.
And she passed the 80-year mark already. What a gal!
In a Pen Women publication, Polly talks about how she became involved with writing about Dr. Mary: “A few years ago, the film Courage Under Fire inspired me to research and document the life of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman ever awarded our country’s Medal of Honor for her services as a surgeon and spy in the Union Army.
“Dr. Mary’s story further intrigued me because the commemorative stamp issued in her honor bears a startling resemblance to my high school graduation photograph. I found it uncanny that I knew exactly what her actions and reactions would be as the prose unfolded on my word processor.”
During today’s four-year span of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the war that tore our nation apart, and the peace that followed to unite us, the stories that are surfacing are shedding light on individual heroic, humane, profound acts that belie the very idea of enmity.
Dr. Mary’s story is one such example. Her determination to become a licensed physician, to go to battle to treat the wounded, to meet all obstacles head-on, and to practice in innovative and successful ways, is worthy of honors.
Not only was she a qualified surgeon and physician, she was an advocate for women’s rights, with a burning desire to educate women on health issues.
She decried the tight, steel-boned corsets that constricted the abdomen, and the voluminous skirts and cumbersome petticoats that often dragged through muddy streets and dirty floors, picking up germs that spread to cause all manner of disease.
She herself wore calf-length over-dresses and trousers, causing dissension wherever she went. She often stood before judges, and their final words were usually, “Go home and put on a dress, madam.”
But her dress was incidental when compared to her accomplishments — graduation from medical school, acceptance (finally) as a qualified physician and surgeon, daring espionage activities resulting in imprisonment, and persistence (never realized by her) in having her Congressional Medal of Honor reinstated.
Initially awarded on Nov. 11, 1865, by President Andrew Johnson “for her patriotic zeal in attending sick and wounded soldiers,” it was revoked in 1917.
By a joint resolution by President Jimmy Carter and the Congress in 1977, the medal was finally restored.
Dr. Mary’s own words are prophetic: “I am the original new woman. I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.
“I have got to die before people will know what I have done. It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead. I would be thankful if people would treat me decently now, instead of erecting great piles of stone over me when I am gone.”
Our tribute is a little late, but sincere. Check with Yawn’s and other bookstores, or order online. Or email Polly: firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for a book signing soon.
Juanita Hughes is retired head of the Woodstock Library.