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Wally McCarthy, car-selling wizard, made his name known in Minnesota

EDINA, Minn. — Wally McCarthy, a giant of the car-selling business with one of the most heavily-advertised names in the state, has died.

He was 94.

"There aren't any more like him," said Paul Rubin, a business partner who knew McCarthy for 33 years. "He was 6-3, and I always thought he was Moses when I saw him."

His career is a classic rags-to-riches story — the hometown kid who sold Edsels in the 1950s and rose to own some of the nation's largest General Motors dealerships.

McCarthy's life in cars began in 1949, when he was hired as an accountant and manager of an Oldsmobile dealership in South St. Paul. At various times, he sold Plymouths, Edsels and used cars.

Only four years later, he opened his first dealership, McCarthy Motors in South St. Paul.

He shifted in and out of several dealerships — some still thriving, some defunct, others with new owners.

In 1962, he opened Wally McCarthy's Oldsmobile in Richfield, on the site of the Best Buy headquarters at Penn Avenue and Interstate 494. (The dealership was the stand-in for "Gustafson Motors" in the 1996 movie "Fargo.")

McCarthy bought Long Cadillac in Roseville in 1973. At the time, he also owned Wally McCarthy's Oldsmobile in Roseville, Wally McCarthy's Oldsmobile in Richfield and Wally McCarthy's Pontiac-GMC-Hyundai in White Bear Lake.

In 2008, he was the state's only Hummer dealer — and he was awarded for being the state's top Cadillac dealer for 15 years.

Rubin was a manager for a Toyota dealership when he met McCarthy. An auto parts supplier introduced them, and concocted a plan for them to become co-owners of a new Pontiac dealership.

Fifteen years later, Rubin bought out McCarthy's share, and today he owns what is now the White Bear Lake Superstore, selling Buick and GMC products.

In the world of car dealers, McCarthy stood above everyone else, said Rubin. "I remember when someone said they wanted to meet him, it was like having an audience with the pope," said Rubin.

McCarthy was warm — even affectionate — toward Rubin.

Rubin recalled how McCarthy would introduce him: "'This is Paul, my partner, and he has two dads.' That means my dad and him."

McCarthy was Rubin's mentor and his inspiration. "In 33 years he never told me what to do. We never had a disagreement," said Rubin.

"We used to race to see who would get to work the earliest. I would say, '6:45!' and then he would say, '6:30!"'

Said Rubin: "Wally bled Oldsmobile. He bled General Motors."

McCarthy competed against the other big Oldsmobile dealer in the Twin Cities — Jim Lupient.

"They were the fifth- and sixth-largest in the country," said Rubin. "They competed, and their supposed animus drove them to become multimillionaires."

In retirement, McCarthy volunteered for Catholic Charities, feeding and housing homeless people at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul.

When interviewed Friday, Rubin paused — and made a comment illustrating McCarthy's legacy of kindness.

"I have a (business) partner, too. He is Lee Gatrell. I am saying that to you right now," said Rubin, his voice cracking. "And wouldn't I be a terrible person if I didn't say that, the way that Wally used to say that about me?"

McCarthy, who died Wednesday, is survived by children Julie Feldmann, Candi McCarthy, Melanie McCarthy, Tom McCarthy and Jason McCarthy; his special friend JoAnna Bame; 14 grandchildren; and 25 great-grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held from 2-6 p.m. Sunday at the Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapel, 5000 West 50th St., in Edina.

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