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A Day of Notional Interest

What began as an attempt to remember shut-ins morphed into a marketing tool. But National Grandparents Day may redeem its soul.

September 06, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Even if Mike Goldgar once sold lots on the moon and took the 5th Amendment when asked about his taxes, it was a little much to call him "a two-bit crook," as the West Virginia coal miner did two decades ago at their showdown over the soul of National Grandparents Day.

For starters, Goldgar was not "two-bit" about anything. He was crafting deals to sell the old folks of America everything from insurance to "official" grandparents rings -- even as he promoted the then-new national commemoration for grandma and grandpa.

As for the "crook" park, Goldgar swore he wasn't pocketing a penny, and it was true he'd never been charged with a crime. All his court cases -- "over 200," by his count -- had been civil.

He had an explanation for everything: pleading the 5th in one of the cases was his lawyer's idea, he insisted -- and after a lifetime of marketing Bible pendants one day and "Grecian Love Gowns" the next, he'd learned to do what the attorneys said. And those $1 deeds to acres in the Copernicus Crater were a gag, of course. Who'd believe even he could sell off the moon?

The bottom line, as Goldgar saw it, was that if you were going to get the nation to buy into National Grandparents Day, you needed someone like him -- a classic promoter -- and you needed dollars behind you, like from those jewelers, or florists, or the greeting-card industry.

You also needed the right figurehead for the day, however, and that couldn't be him, not with a background that included "a few problems."

So he embraced a gray-haired church lady from West Virginia, Marian McQuade, a mother of 15 and grandmother, eventually, of 40. She had long been campaigning for this "new day" as a way to encourage young folk to visit the elderly. That was her preoccupation, the old-timers left alone in nursing homes.

In 1978, Goldgar named this sweet woman executive director of his National Council for Observance of Grandparents Day Inc., and she held that title for several years before she realized what he was doing with it. Then it was time for her husband -- the coal miner -- to have it out with this "blood-sucking parasite."

On Sunday, National Grandparents Day will be celebrated again, 25 years after it was created by congressional and then presidential proclamation. While it never has come close to equaling Mother's Day in American life, it has made enough of a mark by the measures of the marketplace -- 3 million greeting cards sold a year -- to earn its place on September calendars.

So the quarter-century anniversary may be a good time to go back to its origins and that confrontation one high noon, when two men fought over the future of National Grandparents Day. After years of commemorations, we can ask: Who really won the day?

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Joe McQuade began working in the mines at 17, digging out the coal while on his knees in the shafts, building the muscles that eventually packed 220 pounds on his 5-foot, 6-inch frame. But after he married a miner's daughter, their growing family provided incentive to advance beyond the grunt work. "I got myself promoted," he quipped later. "I couldn't support them with what I could shovel."

The father of 15 rose to become president of the Maust Coal and Coke Co., which moved him to New York for a stretch, into a 30-room house in Westchester County, complete with spiral staircase. When "The Beverly Hillbillies" became the most popular TV show in the 1960s, the McQuades had to laugh when critics said how preposterous it was.

By then, Marian McQuade was well into her own career as a crusading volunteer, working through her hometown Oak Hill Baptist Church and the wider circles that opened up to the wife of a company president. The elderly were her cause, whether in organizing "Past 80" parties or serving on the West Virginia Commission on Aging.

She at first thought there should be a "National Shut-in Day" because those were the people who touched her heart. But friendly politicians said it would be tough to rally the masses for long behind any occasion with "shut-in" in its name. Grandparents Day sounded more "upbeat."

In 1973, McQuade had little trouble getting one approved in West Virginia, given its pride in having been the birthplace, decades earlier, of Mother's Day. But the woman behind Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis, by the end of her life lamented how it had become a commercial extravaganza, and McQuade did not want that to happen with her day. "It's not for grandparents like myself to get presents," she said. It was "to alleviate some loneliness."

She assisted campaigns to get grandparents days in other states, but making it happen at a national level was another matter. While West Virginia's late Sen. Jennings Randolph was able to maneuver a proclamation through his chamber, it stalled in the House of Representatives.

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