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Hale E. Dougherty, 71; Doctor Co-Created Spiro Agnew Watch

January 01, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Hale E. Dougherty, the Orange County physician whose sly sense of humor and entrepreneurial spirit inspired him and his wife to market a Spiro Agnew wristwatch that unexpectedly took the nation by storm in the early 1970s, has died of cancer. He was 71.

He died Friday at his Laguna Niguel home.

Dougherty's watch -- which lampooned Richard Nixon's first vice president and retailed for $14.95 -- became a fashion statement for political insiders and celebrities during turbulent times. John Lennon ordered one and sent Dougherty a signed copy of the album "Let It Be" in return. Elizabeth Taylor personally ordered a dozen, then sent her chauffeur to pick them up. A lawyer for President Nixon ordered two in a letter written on White House stationery.

What began as an idea based on a college joke of the time -- Did you know that Mickey Mouse wears a Spiro Agnew watch? -- spawned a profitable novelty watch company and dozens of knockoffs whose creators were promptly sued by Dougherty for copyright infringement.

"It started out as a practical joke, and it turned into a business," said the doctor's son Lawrence, one of 10 children. "It swept the country like wildfire. It was a great laugh for people who didn't like [Agnew]. But a lot of people thought the world of him, and they bought one too."

Hale Dougherty sent Agnew one of the first watches, and the vice president thought it was "both attractive and clever."

"My youngest daughter will, I know, enjoy wearing it," Agnew wrote Dougherty in June 1970. "It is good to have your support and understanding, even though you do not always agree with my thoughts. That is one of the things that makes America great...."

However, a month later, as sales took off and prominent Democrats began sporting the watch, Agnew was less amused. His lawyer sent Dougherty a letter informing him that he hadn't received Agnew's permission to use his likeness and that his "droll product" invaded Agnew's privacy. He said Agnew would grant permission if a substantial portion of the profits from the watch were donated to the families of American soldiers captured or missing in Vietnam.

Dougherty, who was active in Democratic Party politics, made a donation to the American Cancer Society instead.

"He liked the controversy it stirred up," Lawrence Dougherty said.

Hale Dougherty was born Aug. 3, 1931, in Atchison, Kan. At 19, he married Patricia, his high school sweetheart. While attending the University of Kansas Medical School, Dougherty mowed lawns and raised Chihuahuas in his basement to make ends meet.

The couple eventually moved to Anaheim, where Dougherty set up a practice in family medicine.

At Christmas 1969, one of their sons told them the Mickey Mouse joke that was making the rounds at UC Santa Barbara.

"We laughed, and I said, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a Spiro Agnew watch?' And my husband said, 'Let's do it,' " Patricia Dougherty said. "It wasn't a political thing -- it truly wasn't. It was just a fun thing, a joke. We didn't realize the impact it would have."

The couple hired a Long Beach art student to come up with the design -- Agnew, dressed in a red, white and blue outfit resembling the one Mickey wore, with his arms showing the time. They called their venture Dirty Time Co., based on the way a young neighbor mispronounced the family's name, and began shopping the Agnew watch to local retailers.

"They said, 'Great idea.' But they also said they wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole," Patricia Dougherty said.

So the couple had 2,000 watches made by a Swiss company and took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Free Press. Orders poured into their home. One of the first came from Pierre Salinger, a former aide to President Kennedy. He ordered half a dozen.

When a wire service photo of Ethel Kennedy wearing an Agnew watch ran in newspapers across the country, the stream of orders turned into an avalanche. Magazines from Time to Playboy did stories on the watch, and its likeness popped up in editorial cartoons. The entire Dougherty family worked feverishly to keep up with demand, running the business from the top of the pool table in their home until they moved into a renovated restaurant.

Eventually, the phenomenon cooled, but by then Dirty Time Co. had spun off other novelty watches and clocks, including ones featuring Alfred E. Neuman and Ronald McDonald, Jerry Brown and Nixon. The family sold the business in the late 1970s.

Through all the hoopla, Dougherty continued working as a doctor. He retired two years ago, 40 years to the day after he began.

In public, Dougherty kept his politics, and his company's profits, secret. He joked that he made enough money to finally pay off his own college loans. Even today, members of his family insist that they don't know how many Agnew watches were sold.

"It still pops up periodically. Out of the clear blue somebody will call us from some newspaper or magazine and ask about the watch," his wife said. "All of our children turned out to be entrepreneurs themselves. This experience taught them that there's nothing you can't do if you set your mind to it. I guess that's the biggest legacy of all."

In addition to his wife and son Lawrence, Dougherty is survived by eight of his other children, Stephen, Patricia, Maureen, Hale II, Sean, Amy, Colin and Brendan; and 13 grandchildren.

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