Hometown History #64: About Those Lady Bugs


Above, a news photo from 1974 of the Lady Bug kids. Front, second from left is Franklin Reference Librarian/Archivist Vicki B. Earls. Future Franklin State Rep, Jim Vallee (who preceded Jeff Roy on Beacon Hill), was also a Lady Bug that day.

It is well known in its broad outlines and successive Secretaries of State, William Galvin being in that role for the past 25 years, have printed booklets that are made available at the State House and elsewhere promoting the story of the child-citizen activists from Franklin who gave us our “state bug.

It began with well-loved elementary school teacher Mrs. Palma Johnson and her second-grade class at the Kennedy School. In the course of her class one day she happened to mention that the state had designated a state bird the chickadee - and state tree - the American Elm - and of course a state fish – the “sacred” cod. An inquisitive child asked if there was a state bug and, upon being informed by Johnson that there wasn’t, another child reportedly declared that there should be, and a brief discussion ensued that produced much enthusiasm for the lady bug.

And from that teachable moment, grew a momentous project. Johnson explained that making it official would involve creating a law and daringly suggested that perhaps the students themselves could get the process started.

With that departure from the day’s lesson plan, the Kennedy School second graders and their teacher were off and running. She wrote to Beacon Hill to request the appropriate form – the right to free petition. And when it arrived, she and the students got to work, explaining on the form why making the Lady Bug the state insect was a good idea.

They wrote their idea about a state bug on the special form. Then, Mrs. Johnson explained that a legislator – a state Senator or Representative – also needed to sign the petition. So, they contacted Franklin State Representative at the time, Robert E. Ficco, who agreed to sign the petition – mind you all of this conducted long hand with lots of 10-cent first class stamps.

While probably a bit “over the heads” of students, Johnson made sure the students learned about all the steps that were ahead. Eventually, after due consideration and probably some finagling from Ficco, the Clerk of the House gave it a bill number, H. 5155.

Of course, lobbying is part and parcel of most lawmaking so Johnson began to prepare the students to testify, working up ladybug costumes of bright red felt.

And, in due time, they did, piling into a school bus for the long trip to a faraway place – keeping in mind that many Franklin children of that era rarely if ever left the town.

And several did testify before a legislative committee about the wonders of the lady bug. They must have done a good job because the committee reported favorably and sent the measure on to the full legislature.

And the students visited again, even stopping in to see individual legislators...And watched as the senate also voted to pass it – finally returning to be present when Governor Francis Sargent signed it into law.

Franklin’s Kennedy School was proud enough of the story that they staged a reenactment, complete with a trip to Beacon Hill, in the mid-1980s. And the Lady Bug became the school’s mascot and the namesake of a trail on conservation land behind the school.

Tragically, Mrs. Johnsons retirement years were cut short when she was struck and killed by a truck in 2008 while walking to church.

Beyond her lady bug fame, Johnson was once a Latin teacher at the high school, was a member of the town’s all-woman ambulance brigade during World War II, and started the very first kindergarten in the town.

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