As a kid, Marian McQuade liked hanging out with her grandma on her farm in West Virginia.
“I remember she worked all day doing the things all of them had to do—milk cows, feed the chickens, fix breakfast, do the washing.”
“Then she’d put on a clean apron, or turn her apron around, and we’d take a glass of jelly and see somebody a couple miles down the road that was sick.”
Most of these neighbors were elderly. “I’ll never forget talking with those delightful people,” Marian later recalled. “That’s where my respect and love for old people got started.”
A housewife from West Virginia fought for years to get a national holiday for grandparents declared. In 1978, she won.
In 1936, when she was still a teenager, Marian met her husband, Joe, at a sleigh-riding party. By the time she was 40, they had 15 children and were living comfortably in Richwood, W.Va., where Joe was an executive at a coal company.
A lot of Marian’s friends played bridge in their spare time, but she wanted to start spending time with elders again.
So she started organizing an annual “Past 80” party in Richwood. Everyone over 80 was invited, and she shot Polaroid portraits for each guest to keep.
She also started spending time in nursing homes, where she met a lot of lonely people.
“I visited this one woman for a time and then I got ready to go. She said ‘Come back,’ and I assured her I would.”
“Then she looked sad. ‘That’s what they all say,’ she told me with tears in her eyes.”
“I made up my mind then and there I would never let old people down.”
So she organized exercise groups, craft classes, and theatrical productions in the homes, and she helped residents record their time-tested recipes and remedies to make sure they didn’t get lost.
She came up with the idea of a holiday for grandparents because she wanted to entice kids to visit nursing homes, too.
“So many of these people are shut up and neglected, even though they have grandchildren living,” Marian later said. “I thought maybe if we had a Grandparents Day, some [residents] would get the love and attention they need so badly.”
But she also thought the holiday could benefit the young.
“So many of these people still have so much to offer,” she said. “They have knowledge and experience. This is lost to many children simply because their grandparents don’t live with them as they did several generations ago.”
“If it isn’t possible for them to visit their own grandparents, they can go to a nursing home and visit someone else’s grandparents.”
“I don’t see Grandparents Day as a loud, commercialized holiday, but rather as a day set aside when all of us would pause in our busy lives to make a little extra effort to visit.”
Marian and Joe were well connected in West Virginia, and she didn’t have a hard time convincing the governor there to declare a statewide holiday.
But she wanted more.
In the early 1970s, she convinced both of her U.S. senators to introduce a bill proposing a nationwide Grandparents Day. The bill passed the Senate in 1973, only to languish in the House for years.
Some representatives, including Ken Hechler of West Virginia, thought there were already enough national holidays.
When Marian wrote to him asking for his support, he replied, “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’m not too enthusiastic about filling up our calendar with all sorts of special days ranging from those honoring left-handed monkey wrench operators to pickle juice tasters.”
Over the next several years, Marian wrote to every member of Congress, every governor, and hundreds of other public officials about her cause. She traveled the country lobbying Rotary clubs and garden groups. She courted the media.
One of her biggest coups was landing a spot on the Barbara Walters show Not for Women Only in 1976.
“People should realize that grandparents are the backbone of the American family life because youngsters gain so much wisdom and knowledge from them,” Marian told the TV audience.
The bill finally passed the House in July 1978. Shortly afterwards, President Carter signed a law designating the Sunday after Labor Day as Grandparents Day.
By this time, Marian was 60 and a grandma of 14.
Amid all the hoopla, one of her kids told a reporter, “I figured at first the Grandparents Day campaign would just be something to keep Mom busy.”
“I guess I underestimated her.”