Ed McGrath, teachers’ champion

The 100-year-old’s fight for teachers resulted in legislation giving them collective-bargaining rights

PHOTO by Jon Hermison

Edward McGrath, who turned 100 on December 12, still recalls a battle he fought in 1952, as a teacher at Sacramento High School. In 1955, he took that battle all the way to California’s Third District Court of Appeals—and lost. But that wasn’t the end of the story. McGrath’s efforts helped inspire California Senator Albert S. Rodda to draft a measure ensuring collective-bargaining rights for public school teachers. These established efforts are particularly relevant in light of the recent contract negotiations between the Sacramento City Teachers Association and the Sac City Unified School District. Having traveled the world and engaged in a lifelong teaching career that took him from his native California to Syracuse, N.Y., where he earned his Ph.D., McGrath celebrated his birthday on December 1 at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center, which he has patronized for years.

First of all, how does it feel to be turning 100? Any plans for the occasion?

If it’s nice and sunny, I’ll sit out in the sun.

How much of your time was spent in Sacramento?

I’ve been all over the world. I was born and educated in California—I graduated from Berkeley with honors … A year later, I took a second degree. [When I began teaching] at Sacramento High School, there was only one high school. While I was there, they were building McClatchy.

How do you feel about the impact your stand against the school administration had on the education system and teachers’ rights?

From the early days, I belonged to the Teacher’s Association. Now, as many people would tell you, workers were supposed to have those, not teachers. It was in the air at that time. We founded [the union] here in Sacramento, which is the oldest one west of the Mississippi River. We had meetings and everything. It was the days of the early Franklin Roosevelt administration. People were organizing.

We were always pushing on the Board of Education to advance salaries or do something. So there was a lot of [work]. I remember, so well, that the principal of the high school had to go into the war, so they brought over the vice principal from McClatchy—they had just organized—[to be] principal of Sac High. At the time, we had all graduated from universities and were interested in public affairs. We pushed at that time … to stop the principal that had been sent over to us—he was a local boy out of Colorado or something like that.

The new principal wanted to push things with himself in front. So he eventually might be superintendent, or something. He did all kinds of strange things. Like go out and visit the football team at practice, and then when they had the Saturday games—the stadium was part of the junior college—it was a matter of [discussion with] the department chair. But he insisted on sitting with the team down on the [bench]. He was a more public figure and all that sort of thing. Before he left, he organized everything down to the last minute.

So he had all the faculty [working on Thanksgiving]—and Thanksgiving is a legal holiday. Then he was going to scatter five to ten of us throughout. One of my cohorts had to take tickets and all that sort of thing. Strictly against the law! But he was off on a big thing. I had to, in the meantime, quit. He went on for several years. He was very much the creature of the board of education. We would come to the board of education meetings and stand there and propose something—that they ought to do this and they ought to do that and so on—so we were not popular.”

So you took a stand against the principal at that point?

We said, “You can’t send teachers out to a nonpublic school in order to collect tickets, or watch the restrooms or anything like that.” They said, “No, that’s the teachers’ responsibility.” That went on for a couple years. It was during that time, however, that the board did adopt a single salary schedule and we were in back of that. We pushed for that. I think the classical education was okay at Sac High. Berkeley was coming up big time and Stanford and so on. The principal started deciding [what we should do]. Well, he began to get in trouble with the faculty. We would say no-no-no and he would say yes-yes-yes.

What do you enjoy doing now that you’re retired?

I dabble in painting a little bit and investigate historic stuff. I like listening to classical music.

How was your birthday party at the Fine Arts Center?

The party that we had Friday—a fellow came up to me and said, “I remember you. You taught me history in high school!”

Finally, I have to ask: What’s the secret of living to be 100?

I don’t think there’s a secret! Try not to catch a cold, perhaps. Don’t come down with bronchitis.