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Each generation of Americans includes a few strong-willed individuals who formulate ideas and persist in making them realities. They figuratively move mountains and change the courses of rivers to attain their goals. West Virginia has such a person in Mrs. Marian McQuade of Oak Hill, who modestly calls herself "just a housewife." She did not rearrange the landscape but unhesitatingly tackled the not inconsiderable task of convincing her state's Governor, U.S. Senators, and a President of the United States of the rightness of her cause-National Grandparents Day.
A lifelong Mountaineer, Mrs. McQuade cares deeply about people. Her many achievements and activities through the years reflect her humanitarian nature.
The 76-year-old mother of 15, grandmother of 40, and great-grandmother of three has been vice-chairman of the West Virginia Commission on Aging, delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, president of the Vocational Rehabilitation Foundation, and vice president of the Nursing Home Licensing Board.
As a mother and community activist, she has made positive contributions to the state she loves through organizations such as the Order of the Eastern Star and the Fayette County Historical Society, but she is best known beyond the state's borders as founder of the annual tribute to grandparents.
It will surprise many who believe the observance has commercial roots, but it is because of the dedication and persistence of this unassuming coal miner's wife that the Sunday after Labor Day each year is designated National Grandparents Day.
She and Joe McQuade, her husband of 57 years, are devoting their golden years to making the observance truly meaningful. They reach out to grandparents and grandchildren throughout the nation from their home in Oak Hill, a community of about 5,000 centered around U.S. Route 19 in Fayette County 40 miles southeast of Charleston.
Mrs. McQuade was born Marian Herndon in Caperton, which is now one of the ghost towns in the New River Gorge. Her father was a coal miner. As a child, she often visited her grandmother, Maude McClung Dickerson on her 130-acre farm.
"After working all day on the farm, Grandma would walk off to visit elderly people of the community," she recalls. "Often I would tag along. I never forgot talking with those delightful people. That's where my love and respect for oldsters started."
She was given an opportunity to express her regard for older people in 1956 when she first helped Jim Comstock, editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly and the Richwood News Leader, with organizing a Past 80 Party. Now a 35-year tradition, the Past 80 Party is held annually in Richwood on the second Saturday in June. Some 135 octogenarians plus additional seniors under 80 from all parts of the state enjoy an afternoon of feasting, contests, and entertainment. Among those cheerfully serving participants have been U.S. Senator and Mrs. Robert Byrd and state and local officials.
Organizing the Past 80 Party required contacting nursing homes, and Mrs. McQuade was saddened by learning of the chronic loneliness experienced by so many patients. "They load these people up with gifts at Christmas," she said, "but they leave them alone the other 364 days of the years. I wanted there to be another day to visit."
In addition, her concern sparked the idea of honoring the nation's grandparents wherever they reside. After five years of intense personal lobbying, she obtained a proclamation from Governor Arch Moore, and on May 27, 1973, West Virginia became the first state with a special Grandparents Day.
But that was only the beginning. Buoyed by success at the state level, Mrs. McQuade worked through U.S. Senators Robert Byrd and Jennings Randolph to create a national observance. The date was shifted to September because May's calendar is too crowded and also to symbolize the autumn of life.
Her efforts bore fruit in September 1978, when the White House called to inform her President Jimmy Carter had signed Public Law 96-62-it had been given unanimous Congressional approval-designating the Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day. The first nationwide observance occurred in 1979 and it continues to grow in popularity.
The statute's preamble cites the day's purpose as: "... to honor grandparents, to give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children's children, and to help children become aware of strength, information, and guidance older people can offer."
"I couldn't believe it," the 5'3" 145-pound, soft-spoken dynamo said of her reaction to the call from the President's aide.
Mrs. McQuade visited Washington as a member of the West Virginia Commission on Aging to lobby for the legislation. She was always optimistic it would pass, but it "took some getting used to when my dream became a reality," she said.
The nation's capital had heard from her on other occasions. One of 10 women participating in a 1958 question-and-answer session with President Dwight Eisenhower, she asked Ike for assurance her children would have opportunities for higher education.
"The President asked me how many children I had," she recalls. "When I told him, his mouth dropped open. It took him several moments to recover and answer my question.'
Most of the 15 McQuade children have earned college degrees, and some of the grandchildren are now college students. One daughter is an attorney, another is a psychiatrist, and three sons are in the coal business.
Those men are following in their father's footsteps. As a teenager, Joe McQuade entered the mines at Minden, a few miles from Oak Hill as a hand-loader on his knees in low coal. He progressed from earning 50 cents a ton loading coal to a position as a mine superintendent. Then he founded his own coal company. Today, retired from active management, he serves as a consultant to the Berwind Company.
Mr. and Mrs. McQuade pay all Grandparents Day expenses, including printing and postage costs for an average of three packets a day sent to people who inquire about the observance.
There is a misimpression afoot that Grandparents Day originated as a florists' promotion. That is not true; however, the flower industry does prepare each September for the many requests for bouquets for grandparents.
Hallmark Cards requested permission from Mrs. McQuade to publish specially designed greeting cards, which the founder described as "a very nice line." The firm volunteered a royalty to defray expenses, but the McQuades declined. "It would take away from the meaning," she said seriously. "From the beginning I didn't want to make money, and I have never accepted donations."
Over the years Mrs. McQuade has persuaded outstanding West Virginians from government, education, religion, business, and community organizations to serve on the Founders Advisory Committee which promotes the annual observance.
Governor Cecil Underwood and Mcquade Family, 1956
Her efforts have been recognized through numerous awards: a 1976 citation as one of 10 West Virginia Women of Accomplishment, designation the same year as a Fayette County Person of the Year, a 1979 citation from the West Virginia Federation of Women's Clubs, a 1981 award as Whitman's Chocolates' Grandparent of the Year, and in 1989 as Richwood's Person of the Year. The U.S. Postal Service issued a 10th anniversary commemorative envelope bearing a likeness of Mrs. McQuade on September 2, 1989.
The promotional packet she mails out includes a personal letter, a history of the event, facts about Mrs. McQuade, suggested activities, the day's purposes, a copy of "Beatitudes for Friends of the Aged," and a family tree chart.
The founder's current effort centers on convincing people to ferret out old photographs stored in attics and bureau drawers so grandparents can identify them. She believes it is critical to accomplish this "while there are still people to ask."
Mrs. McQuade said Grandparents Day observances can take almost any form from demonstrations of talents such as cooking, sculpting, and quilting, to family dances and sing-along, ice cream socials, dinners, compilation of family trees, and, of course, visits to nursing home patients. Regardless of the choice of activity, the idea is to honor grandparents and to cultivate bonding with their grandchildren. Part of the bonding process is familiarizing young people with ancestral lines. She stresses it is not necessary to spend a lot of money to have a rewarding day.
Although Mrs. McQuade traditionally has been on the road speaking at churches in nearby states during the weeks preceding Grandparents Day, she has always made certain she is in Oak Hill each Sunday after Labor Day. Family members living in the area drop in to visit, and those farther away call or send cards and gifts.
Not satisfied with only promoting grandparent events, she continues to help with Past 80 Parties, compiles lists of West Virginia's centenarians, is active in Oak Hill Baptist Church, and volunteers at Plateau Medical Center, Oak Hill's hospital, two days a week. She derives genuine satisfaction from cheering neglected and lonely patients at the hospital.
"I am the luckiest person in the world," she declares with conviction. "I have a wonderful, understanding husband, my children are all healthy and well, and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren brighten my days. Then I have my work promoting Grandparents Day, working with seniors, helping Jim Comstock with the Past 80 Party, and visiting the sick and lonely in hospitals and nursing homes. What more could I want?"
Indeed, giving of herself is this cheerful but determined native West Virginian's greatest joy. And because she cares so much, the nation now has a permanent way to recognize the positive contributions of grandparents everywhere.
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