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The Jewish Man From Gastonia Who Left His Mark On Christmas

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There’s a good chance that the live Christmas tree in your living room was grown in North Carolina. But there’s also a good chance that some of the ornaments on it came from this state as well. 

As part of WFAE’s ongoing collaboration with Our State magazine, reporter Jeremy Markovich introduces us to a businessman from right down the road, whose company once made more than a million Christmas ornaments a day:

Marshall Rauch is Jewish, which makes this thing I’m going to tell you next kind of funny. At one time, Rauch was the largest manufacturer of glass and satin Christmas ornaments in the world. And, if you’re a Jewish Christmas ornament tycoon, you get to make jokes like this:

“All my friends used to tease me,” Rauch said. “[They'd ask,] ‘How do you feel about making ornaments for a Christian religion?’ I said, ‘I have no problem. One of our guys started Christianity.’”

Rauch retired 20 years ago. He’s in his 90s now, but back when I went to Gastonia to talk to him, he had a lot of stories to tell – including one about televangelist Jim Bakker.

Back in the 1980s, Rauch’s son Mark sold 150,000 ornaments to Bakker, for $1.50 each. That seemed like a good deal until Rauch turned on the television one night and saw Bakker selling those $1.50 ornaments for much more.

“And I immediately picked up my phone, it was after midnight,” Rauch recalled, “And I called Marc and said, ‘You think you’re a salesman for selling that for $1.50? Jim Bakker’s selling it for $25!’”

Then, there’s the Elvis story.

“When Elvis Presley died, I realized that would make a heck of a Christmas ornament,” Rauch said.

So, he got a meeting with the guy handling the licensing for Elvis’ estate. At first, it looked promising. But when Rauch made a counter-offer, the licensing guy wasn’t having it. And so, Rauch turned and started to leave.

But at the very last second, the man calls him back and told him, “You got what it takes.”

The Elvis ornaments got made and they sold like crazy. There’s also the story about how Rauch even got into the Christmas ornament business in the first place.

In the 1950s, Rauch owned a textile mill in Gastonia which made balls of kite string and crochet thread. One day, a man named Bill called and asked Rauch if he could do something more delicate, like taking satin and winding it all the way around a really thin paper-mache ball.

“He said, ‘If you can make this ball for me, we’re gonna do a lot of business,’” Rauche said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, Bill, you’ve got me at a disadvantage. Which Bill is this?'”

The man on the other side of the phone was Bill Spiegel, head of the Chicago-based Spiegel Inc., an American retail icon. It took about a month, but Rauch and his plant manager figured out how to mass-produce a satin ornament. Spiegel ordered 3.5 million of them and sold them in the Spiegel Catalog.

Rauch doubled his profits, got a patent and after that, Rauch Industries went all-in on Christmas, making Santa Claus suits, garland, icicles and all sorts of ornaments.

Rauch sold the company in 1995 for $51 million and today, Gastonia is no longer the hub of the ornament industry. Production has moved overseas.

But all of that is only one part of Marshall Rauch’s story. He centered his life on his Jewish faith, and that faith guided him through a political career that began on the Gastonia City Council.

“I was 29 years old. [From] New York. Jewish,” he said. “I got elected.”

And then, in 1967, Rauch became the first Jewish state senator in North Carolina history. And along the way, he encountered a few problems.

Early on in his business career, some civic clubs won’t let him join. A man refused to sell him a piece of property because he was Jewish. Rauch said those incidents were outliers.

“For every stupid person I met in life, I met 100 good ones,” he said.

For example, when the state rewrote its tax laws concerning alcohol, Rauch saw an opening. He added an amendment to the law that prevented private clubs from getting liquor licenses if they discriminated on the basis of religion.

“There were no Jews in country clubs in North Carolina up to that time. Now, they’re in all of them!” Rauch said with a laugh.

Rauch also got Yom Kippur declared a state holiday before his retirement from the Senate in 1990.

Today, a stretch of Interstate 85 in Gaston County is named in his honor. And he said, yes, it’s funny that a Jewish man built his business career on the biggest Christian holiday of the year.

But he said when it comes to faith, all of us have more in common than we might realize.

“Every morning you wake up is a blessing,” he said. “It’s up to you, to make the day a blessing for someone else. That’s religion.”

This story was adapted from Away Message, a podcast about North Carolina’s hard to find people, places, and things, and was based on a story that appeared in Our State’s Christmas 2016 issue. To read and listen to more, visit away.ourstate.com.