Don't Call Me Gerald | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Don't Call Me Gerald

Don't Call Me Gerald

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My father's name was Floyd, which I never much cared for. I didn't like my first name, either, and in third grade I went around asking everyone to call me Buck, but nobody did. Cecil Ferguson said, "If I'm stuck with mine, you're stuck with yours."

There were a lot of Shirleys and Deannas back then, all because of the movie stars Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin. About the time I was christened Gerald, so were a load of other boys; I've long wondered who the Gerald was I have to thank for it. I've discovered no actor or sports hero who would account for it. The only Gerald I can recall on the national scene at that time was Gerald L. K. Smith, a radio rabble-rouser who certainly had his fans, but if you were a thoughtful person, you did not want to be one of them.

My mother was quite a rabble-rouser herself, but the only radio programs she listened to were the "Telephone Hour" and a soap called "The Story of Mary Marlin." If I had been consulted, I would have chosen Marlin over Gerald. It's a little better, although not much.

As quickly as the fashion for Gerald came, it went. There was an occasional Gerald in the movies, but he always turned out to be a tender and crusty father, like Thomas Mitchell in Gone With the Wind, or a butler played by old Melville Cooper. Try to imagine John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or any other western hero being called Gerald. Impossible. It was always Nathan or Jess or Big Jake (Jacob is second only to Michael in baby-boy name popularity at the moment) or The Man From Nowhere, a name I would have dearly loved back in the days when I wanted to be called Buck.

Most Geralds start being Jerry somewhere along the line, but while Gerald seems ponderous, Jerry seems light and a bit fey. Today I'm Jerry to everyone except my brother Carl (he tried Karl briefly), for whom old habits die hard.

The only other people who refer to me as Gerald are men with deep, confident voices. They usually call around dinnertime.

"Gerald? This is Conrad. How are you tonight?"

"Not good."

"This will only take two minutes. Do you have two minutes to secure your financial future?"

"I'm dying."

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