Life was a carnival when Wally McCarthy was around, and his flagship store, Lindahl Olds, reflected that spirit. Decked out like a circus tent, Lindahl Olds served up free hot dogs and popcorn and regularly hosted celebrity radio and TV appearances.
And the button-down executives at General Motors hated it. Every time the suits from Detroit visited, they complained about “that circus place,” said McCarthy’s son, Jason. But McCarthy always had an answer for them.
“He’d say, ‘Did you ever meet anyone who went to a carnival and didn’t have a smile on their face? And as long as I’m Number 1, I guess I’m right and you’re wrong,’ ” Jason McCarthy said.
Abandoned as a child after his mother died and his father disappeared, McCarthy became the world’s largest Oldsmobile dealer, and Lindahl Olds was a Minnesota landmark for decades on the Interstate 494 strip in Richfield. It was so iconic that the Coen brothers used it as the site of a fictional car dealership, Gustafson Motors, in their acclaimed movie “Fargo.”
McCarthy died May 31 at age 93 after a short illness.
“In a business that is so very competitive, Wally was beloved by everybody,” said Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association. “He had a big personality. Anything you did, if Wally was involved it was always more interesting.”
Born in Rush City, McCarthy grew up in Newport. After his mother died when he was 7, his father disappeared for most of McCarthy’s childhood.
“He basically raised himself,” Jason McCarthy said, with neighboring families providing occasional meals. McCarthy and other Depression-era kids would walk the railroad tracks, picking up coal that had fallen off trains and bringing it home for the heating stove.
When McCarthy entered the Navy during World War II, “he thought it was awesome,” his son said. “He had electricity, running water and regular meals.”
McCarthy served in naval intelligence and learned accounting. After the war, he got a job keeping the books at a car dealer. That led him to sales and eventually, ownership of a used-car lot.
He bought Lindahl Olds in the early 1960s and quickly turned it into the flagship of Oldsmobile, selling thousands of cars each year.
“He was the king of Oldsmobile,” Jason McCarthy said. “The people at General Motors used to say he must have ‘Oldsmobile’ tattooed on his you-know-what.”
McCarthy was “a man’s man,” said Paul Rubin, his business partner for 15 years and now an owner of the White Bear Lake Superstore, a Buick and GMC dealer.
“He was a hunter, fisherman, golfer, tennis player,” Rubin said. “Anything he did, he wanted to be the best.”
But McCarthy’s competitive nature was paired with a friendly, generous spirit. His philosophy was that the people who came to buy cars weren’t customers — they were friends and family, said his son.
“My dad’s door was always wide open,” Jason McCarthy said. “It wouldn’t matter if he had the president of General Motors or the governor of Minnesota in his office. If a customer wanted to come in and shoot the breeze, he’d stop what he was doing.”
McCarthy stepped back from running his businesses about 10 years ago but continued to visit the showroom floor every day he was in town. “He was sitting in his chair two weeks ago,” Jason McCarthy said. “He’d say, ‘I want to have my finger on the pulse.’ ”
In addition to Jason, McCarthy is survived by children Julie Feldmann, Candi McCarthy, Melanie McCarthy and Tom McCarthy; special friend, JoAnna Bame; 14 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.