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A Day of Notional Interest

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?

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

Enter Myron “Mike” Goldgar. Marian McQuade said he called in 1977, identifying himself as an Atlanta-area businessman who “wanted to help,” to “give back” to society after spending much of his career in New York in advertising.

Parts of his story seemed odd -- he said he had come up with the idea for a Grandparents Day after visiting an aunt in a nursing home, before he himself had become a grandfather, and had decided independently that it should be on the exact date she favored, the first Sunday after Labor Day.

But why quibble -- he came through. Goldgar convinced two Georgia congressmen to push the measure through the House in 1978, establishing the first National Grandparents Day that September. The next year, President Carter signed a proclamation making the commemoration an annual one.

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By then, Goldgar had set up the National Council for Observance of Grandparents Day as a nonprofit corporation in Georgia, listing Marian McQuade in the top position and himself as executive secretary -- and a friend of his as the third board member. As far as McQuade knew, the council was “a name, that’s all ... we don’t have any money or anything.” She was not interested in contributions: “Nooooo.” If Goldgar had gotten any, she thought it was to have “church brochures printed or something.”

In fact, Goldgar had filed documents with the IRS anticipating $80,000 in income to start, with contributions from the trade organizations of florists, card makers, booksellers and so on. You can’t “take an idea and make a dent on the American consciousness without support from somewhere,” he said. “Why not let a jewelry company offer grandparents rings if a cut went to the cause?”

Why not sell the grandparents insurance also? He did not include McQuade in a second organization he formed in 1979.

Documents for the “Grandparents Assn. of America Inc.” said it would sign up grandparents as members, fund medical research and address “fears experienced by senior citizens.” The seed money: $50,000 from a New York insurance company, which would have the privilege of marketing to the members.

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Goldgar said all the money would go for promotion and expenses -- office, travel, car, etc. -- and that he’d draw no salary. If he had, of course, he might not have kept it: In one court case being fought as Grandparents Day was revving up, he was ordered to pay $107,000 to a New York advertising man whose business he had bought without making all the required payments. Goldgar said he had no income to pay the judgment, and had $500,000 in claims against him.

Marian McQuade had never met anyone like Goldgar, but her rugged husband had -- and after a few Grandparents Days came and went, he began asking for the books of the council carrying on his wife’s cause. When Goldgar declined, he headed to Atlanta.

They met at a restaurant, at noon, soon after Grandparents Day 1982. McQuade, still a tank at 67, brought one of his sons, in part to make sure he controlled himself, and invited this reporter, then at the Atlanta Constitution, to witness his sit-down with the tall, white-haired Goldgar, 63.

Within minutes, McQuade was trembling in anger: “You just used her.”

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“I made her executive director out of consideration for her,” Goldgar said. “As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. McQuade has done very little to further this holiday.”

Goldgar said many others had lobbied for the day. “The successful bill ... was my bill,” he said. “The council is mine.”

“You’re not going to make money off her name,” McQuade said.

“Prove I took one ... cent.”

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“You set it up good.”

“Sure I did.”

Goldgar said he’d set it up correctly as well. Perhaps Marian McQuade thought such an occasion could prosper by having kids make cards with crayons. But many people would never send one if not for Hallmark. Some didn’t have yards to grow flowers -- they needed florists. If the cause was noble, what was wrong with having those with a profit motive promote it?

“I run one of the largest coal companies,” McQuade said. “I can see right through you.”

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Goldgar said, “Why doesn’t she go start her own council?”

Joe McQuade strode from the lunch muttering how the man was “a two-bit crook only in it for the money,” but he was pleased he had restrained himself. “I’d be ashamed to whip a guy that old.”

Goldgar? He said afterward that he’d forgotten one thing in the restaurant -- he should have touted that industry too. “Breaking bread is a very good way to get together,” he said.

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The McQuades eventually filed suit to get Goldgar out of the grandparents business, but they never got their full day in court. Before the case could be resolved, Goldgar died of a heart attack, in 1986. His council soon faded away.

The years since have vindicated Goldgar on one count: The marketplace would determine the fate of Grandparents Day. What he got wrong was the verdict.

“It will be one of the biggest holidays,” he had predicted. “The arithmetic is there.”

There indeed are a lot of grandparents -- 69 million in the United States -- and many have multiple grandkids. That’s why a jewelry industry publication once touted the day as a potential “sales bonanza” and why the greeting-card association originally predicted that Americans would buy 70 million Grandparents Day cards a year, barely half of Mother’s Day’s 135 million but the sixth-highest of all occasions.

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In 2003, Grandparents Day sits 13th on the industry’s list, with 3 million cards sold, ranking it just above Secretary’s Day. The restaurant association, meanwhile, says that Grandparents Day fell “toward the bottom” of a poll on holiday dining out.

But after a quarter-century, it is still celebrated -- and in ways that would please Marian McQuade.

At Wal-Marts, the displays were modest this year, a few shelves in the card racks and small signs reminding shoppers it was coming Sept. 7.

Yet on Sunday, Wal-Mart itself will spend $1.45 million for Grandparents Day projects around the country, many aimed at ... shut-ins. That’s only $500 per store, but that’s enough in the Los Angeles area to help kids from a Lancaster church take handmade gifts to rest homes and others from a Boys and Girls Club serenade residents of a home in Cerritos.

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And there still is a council promoting the day. It took a while, but the McQuades did what Goldgar had taunted them to do. They formed their own.

Worried that no one would carry on the legacy, Joe McQuade called several of the children to his bedside when he fell seriously ill. By the time he died three years ago, at 86, the National Grandparents Day Council was up and running out of the Chula Vista, Calif., home of Dona Jo “Jackie” McQuade Lancaster, 65, the second-oldest of the McQuade children.

It was a one-woman operation, with a Web page detailing her mother’s efforts, suggested activities for kids and forms for grandparent of the year contests. Jackie said business and other groups, such as AARP, offered manpower or money, and she did let sponsors provide prizes for the grandparents of the year, such as trips to Hawaii. That was it, though -- after her mom’s experience, she was suspicious that any offers would have strings. “They want to brand it their holiday,” she said. “We’ve fought them all off.”

But as the 25th anniversary of Grandparents Day approached, the family decided it would need more than such a shoestring effort. It was time for a powwow -- and perhaps a last reunion at the side of the family matriarch.

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They gathered two weeks ago in Oak Hill, W.Va., where Marian McQuade has been confined for the last six months to one of those facilities that prompted her concern for the lonely old folks 50 years ago, a nursing home.

Suffering from Alzheimer’s, the 86-year-old is in hospice care these days, though hardly alone. One of her daughters, Margaret, spends each afternoon by her side and shows her old photos, including ones of her with several presidents.

Marian McQuade is not immune from the fear of being abandoned, however. When told by Margaret that her family members were coming from around the country, she said, “Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.” Then the morning of the reunion she tried to wheel her chair out of the room an hour early. “I’m going to see my children,” she informed her nurse.

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What the McQuades resolved in Oak Hill was that they’d all have to pitch in. If Grandparents Day was going to survive in their mother’s image, they would have to support Jackie’s council themselves. They went around asking each other for “membership dues” or pledges. There also was a form asking everyone what talents they could donate.

Members of the scattered clan offered to head branches of the council in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia. “One of the grandchildren walked up to me and said, ‘Here’s $5. Can I be a member?’ ” said another daughter, Patricia Evelyn McQuade of Watsonville, Calif.

Daughter Jackie said the family has been told that commercial interests will someday take control of the day, “that it’s inevitable, that we might as well stop fighting. But we’d still rather the grandkids make a homemade card for their grandparents and visit them.

“We’re going to try to carry it on where it was meant to be.”

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And that means the Web page of their National Grandparents Day Council does not mention Mike Goldgar, of course. But he continues to have his final say on his headstone in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Ga. There, at least, he will remain, for eternity, “Founder of Grandparents Day.”


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