05/09/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Mother's Day Turns 100: A Celebration Sparked by a Penny Postcard

The first national observance of Mother's Day in America took place exactly one hundred years ago. Contrary to what one might think, it was not the brainchild of florists or greeting card marketers. Instead, much of the credit goes to Frank Hering, who made the first public appeal for a national day celebrating mothers ten years before President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law. If historians view activist Anna Jarvis as "the mother of Mother's Day," then Hering is the "father."

Frank Hering got the inspiration for the idea when he visited a fellow professor's classroom at the University of Notre Dame. Hering was both a history professor and the school's first athletic director (also called "the father of Notre Dame football" for transforming the program from intramural to intercollegiate). Hering was curious why the instructor was distributing penny postcards to all the students.

"What are they writing?' Hering asked his colleague. "Anything," replied the professor. "Anything at all as long as it's to their mothers. We do this every month in this class. One day a month is mother's day."

On February 7, 1904, Hering addressed a memorial service organized by the community service organization Fraternal Order of Eagles in Indianapolis when he decided to bounce the idea of establishing a national day honoring mothers to his audience. The organization jumped on the idea. Thanks to the grassroots campaign of Eagle membership, several states and municipalities established local Mother's Day observances. Hering used his influence as elected national leader of the organization in 1909 and 1911 to continue to help spread the idea. Thanks to those efforts and work by Anna Jarvis, the U.S. Congress passed the act in 1914 that President Wilson signed into law.

Anyone can come up with a great idea, but to galvanize people into action around it no doubt drew benefit of Hering's leadership skill as the football coach he was. "It was a natural for a group like ours to buy into Frank Hering's idea and support it," explains Wayne D. Clark, a Past Grand Worthy President of the Fraternal Order of Eagles and current chair of their museum and archives committee. "The qualities he possessed as a person spoke to the bedrock values of the organization--truth, liberty, justice and equality. It never ceases to amaze me the extent of his contribution to our organization and the country. It is no surprise that he rose very quickly to the leadership of the Eagles not long after his speech proposing the idea of Mother's Day."

In addition of his work for Mother's Day, Hering demonstrated his visionary leadership and humanitarian spirit when he established the Hering House in 1925 as a community and recreational center for South Bend's burgeoning African American population. For more than four decades, the Hering House (also called "the House of Hope") provided vital services for African Americans similar to the YMCA during the predominantly segregated reality of the times.

The Eagles went on to play a similarly prominent role in helping launch Social Security and Medicare, among other causes, and currently endow the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center at the University of Iowa set to open in late August.