Monday, February 8, 2010

The Heart Association

In 1960 my father wrote a short essay about himself for his 25th class reunion at Harvard. It begins this way: "A magazine editor friend once described me in a phrase as 'The Scrooge of Valentine's Day.' This probably sums me up pretty well."

He explained that when he joined the New York Heart Association as its public relations director, around 1951, he lobbied to change its symbol, the valentine heart, to an anatomically correct, cardiovascular heart. But after going through congestive heart failure and then a successful operation in 1954 (one of the first), he changed his mind. He recalled all the cards, letters, and encouragement he received. "Like Scrooge, I saw the light," he said. "I am back at work, have been for more than five years, and have completely abandoned my crusade against the valentine heart."

I think about him as the p.r. guy when I read that February is American Heart Month and that February 1 was National Wear Red Day, and I wonder what kind of ad he might have aired during the Superbowl to reach that audience of one hundred million. Back in the 50s, February was always the time of the big annual fund, like now, because of the valentine tie-in. I remember the big black and white glossies of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds: the King and Queen of Hearts in '58 or '59. Another year I think it was Perry Como and Dinah Shore. And after his operation, he didn't hesitate to publicize himself.

There was a Sunday-supplement piece he wrote called "I Beat Heart Failure." It included staged photos of models portraying him—some guy, looking strange with no moustache, struggling to climb a flight of stairs at a train station—and us (after the happy ending): silly laughing blond people playing ping-pong!

There was also an hour-long radio program, airing in February, of course. It was one of a series on NBC called "Biographies in Sound." The announcer was none other than John Cameron Swayze, famous for his Timex commercials ("takes a licking and keeps on ticking"). And the subject was my dad, Emil H. Ober. He wrote in the reunion essay: "By some curious quirk I was sandwiched in between the week they did Will Rogers and the week they did George Washington. This made me feel pretty important until suddenly I realized that I was the only person on the series still living." My mom and sister and I were on it too, and this time we got to play ourselves.

His mended heart gave him a pretty good seven years. But it failed again in 1961. This time a second operation couldn't help him. After all that ink on his own behalf, he must have felt as if he'd gotten a busted warranty. He died in July, age 48. We moved to El Paso, Texas, to live near my mom's brother, and everything changed, which it would have done anyway. Except for the model family, which continues to play ping-pong in 1955.

The American Heart Association website says that February as National Heart Month started in 1963, but I wonder if my dad had something to do with the planning stages, back when he was the Scrooge of Valentine's Day and writing confidently: "In the Fiftieth Anniversary Report, I shall be glad to give a more detailed account of my personal bout with heart disease, as well as windmills."

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