Restoration is a way of life for filmmaker who recovers the past
Former Astoria man returns in distinctive vehicle with a story about how he found his lost sister

Friday, March 09, 2007
By SUE CODY -The Daily Astorian

An Astoria story comes full circle Saturday.

Jeff Daly, not a native Astorian - "I moved here when I was 1 year old, does that count?" - grew up in this river town in the 1950s and 60s, the son of a fish cannery executive and a mother who worked for the school district.

You might have seen him Monday driving around in his 1948 Mercury woody wagon. Big, maroon, polished wood paneling, giant white-wall tires.

When the car pulled up to the Astoria Coffeehouse on 11th Street in downtown, two women in the coffeehouse jumped up. "Jeff Daly!" They recognized the car. Vicki Gasser and Melissa Powell attended Astoria High School with Jeff and his wife Cindy.

Gasser said, "I recognized the car. I watched him restore it. I was fascinated by old cars. I was so excited to see he still had it."

"We have tickets to your movie," Gasser told Jeff and Cindy.

In 1969, Jeff saw the woody advertised in The Daily Astorian. "I scanned the ads every day," he said.

His father, Jack Daly, a Bumblebee cannery executive, took Jeff up to Bond Street where the vehicle was warehoused in a man's garage. It wasn't much, but Jeff saw potential.

"It didn't even look like a car. There was a hood and a couple doors," Jeff said. "The car had been pulled out of a field where it had been used as a chicken coop. The chickens sat on top - and you know what chickens do - it was all rusted out."

Jeff paid $250. "My Dad thought I was crazy," Jeff said. Jack Daly didn't stop his son, though.

Jeff scoured swap meets, talked to local guys and even got door panel inserts made by Robert Roeser, who made caskets for Hughes-Ransom Mortuary.

"It took three years, but I got it restored," Jeff said.

Jeff drives his finely tuned woody on the beach and in parades in Seaside, where he and his wife Cindy have a home.

Molly and Jeff Daly, photographed on the Seaside Prom in 2006. Photo by Robbie McClaran
Projecting his DVD documentary, “Where’s Molly,” at the Liberty Theater Feb. 13. A screening of the documentary will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Liberty.

Theater is part of story

The Liberty Theater was a part of growing up in Astoria, Cindy said. "Every Saturday we went to the movies there. It's where we hung out as kids."

"It cost 25 cents," Jeff chimes in. "We had another quarter to spend on candy. A nickel for M&Ms, a nickel for Jujubes."

"Afterwards we went over to Lawson's, had a hot dog and soda, then went to the YMCA," Cindy said.

Jeff and Cindy led separate lives after high school. Jeff became a television cameraman after learning photography at The Daily Astorian and attending college. Cindy went into business administration. Both married others and divorced. They became reacquainted at their 25-year Astoria High School reunion.

Cindy, after asking about Jeff said, "What about Molly?"

Jeff was dumbfounded. "It was the first time in 30 years that anyone had said her name," Jeff said.

"I don't have any idea about Molly. I never lived with Molly. Whatever you do, don't ever ask my mother about her. Don't mention her name," Jeff and Cindy recounted at the coffeehouse.

"In a small town people know everything about everybody," Cindy said. She remembered Jeff had a sister named Molly.

But Molly Jo Daly disappeared from the family's home and vocabulary nine days short of her third birthday. Jeff was 6.

Molly was born with a club foot and wandering eye, problems the doctors believed could be fixed. But when she was nearly 3, she was pronounced "profoundly retarded," Jeff said. His mother, Sue Mercer Daly "had the persona of perfection," Cindy said. Molly didn't fit into the 1950s picture of the perfect family and was sent away.

On to 2003-04

Fast-forward 9 years. Jeff and Cindy were now married. Jeff's mother died in October 2003.

In December, when Jeff and Cindy learned about the restoration of the Liberty Theater, they brought Jack Daly. "It was like old-home week," Jeff said. Jack reconnected with the Astoria Clowns and saw friends he hadn't seen in years. "He even enjoyed the Pink Martini concert," Jeff said.

A few weeks later, Jeff's father had a heart attack. "He got ill when I was scheduled to shoot the AFC (American Football Conference) championship. I told him I'd cancel, but he insisted I go."

There was a week between the championship and the Super Bowl, which Jeff was also scheduled to shoot. "My dad died in the week between the two games." he said.

In Jack Daly's wallet, Jeff and Cindy found a card: "Molly Daly, May 1, 1954" was written along with her Social Security number.

In the back of a closet in a folder, Cindy and Jeff found documents with more information on Molly. She had been institutionalized at Fairview Training Center, in Salem that opened in 1908 as the "Oregon State Institution for the Feeble-Minded."

"What if she's still alive?" they wondered.

Cindy picked up the phone and began dialing numbers they had found. On the third call, Molly was located, living in a group home in Hillsboro.

Jeff and Molly had been separated 47 years. Cindy and Jeff went to see her.

She wasn't perfect. Blind in one eye, confined to a wheelchair with rudimentary verbal skills, but Jeff saw potential there, just as he had with the dilapidated woody.

When he saw Molly, "the floodgates opened. All these memories came rushing back," Jeff said. "He recognized her instantly," Cindy said. He remembered living with her.

"She looks like family," Jeff said. "She has Jeff's mother's laugh," Cindy said.

Molly loves clothes, putting on as many as possible at one time, Cindy said. Jeff and Cindy bought her a pair of soft leather high-heeled boots. "Molly bent down, touched the boots, then looked at us and smiled. She looked prim and proper," Cindy said.

Like the gathering of parts for the woody, and the three years spent restoring it, Jeff and Cindy spent three years documenting the history of Molly's disappearance from the family with footage from Fairview, family history, talks with friends from Astoria and their advocacy for legislation to make it easier for siblings to reunite with family members who were institutionalized.

The DVD documentary, "Where's Molly" premiered at the Portland Film Festival in February. Molly attended with Jeff and Cindy. State Senate President Peter Courtney, who sponsored the legislation for Molly's Bill, sat a few feet in front of them.

"Molly's attention span isn't very long," Jeff said. "During the film, she said 'water.'" Jeff said he leaned over and told her he'd get some in a few minutes. Molly responded, "water" loud enough for the entire audience to hear. Jeff and Molly left to get some water.

But when Molly was wheeled down the aisle up to the stage after the showing, the audience began rising as she passed, "just like at a wedding when people stand for the bride," Cindy said. The entire crowd of 400 rose and gave a standing ovation.

Molly liked the attention.

In the DVD, Jeff can be seen wheeling Molly on the Seaside Prom, along Astoria's Riverwalk and in front of the Liberty Theater, where it will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. "Knowing that would have put Jack (Daly) over the top. He would have been so proud," Cindy said.

There is other footage of Molly in Seaside's Fourth of July, riding in the Jeff's 1948 woody.

Jeff said he can't hold a grudge against his mother and father. "The state of Oregon was asking you, encouraging you, to keep your children there (Fairview)," he said. Cindy added, "It was the social norm."

"What I get upset about is that it was kept secret," Jeff said. "When I became an adult I wish I could have talked about my sister. I would have liked that opportunity to have kept in contact. That's the sad part."

Molly has now been integrated into family life and a sense of place outside her immediate sphere. "The best part is the grandkids," Jeff said. "They ask if 'Aunt Molly' is coming. They don't see the wheelchair, they see Molly. They touch Molly.

"It is so rich to have people who care. Molly is able to teach acceptance."

Jeff Daly is now a happy man. "He doesn't have that haunting," Cindy said. And Cindy no longer has to ask, "Where's Molly?"