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Memorial Disservice

There was a time, not too long ago, when almost everyone in Seattle remembered Caspar Sharples. He was a revered physician and educator during the early years of this century, the founder of two hospitals and a guiding force behind development of the city's school system.

Sharples died in 1941, and a few years later, when Seattle began building new public schools all over town to cope with postwar needs, it was inevitable that one of them would be named to honor him. In 1952, the Caspar Sharples School opened its doors on the city's South Side. It has stood there ever since as a living memorial to a legendary community leader.

Until a couple of months ago, that is. At a meeting in November, the Seattle School Board, on which Sharples used to serve, decided that 47 years of posthumous honor were enough for him. It voted to rip his name off the building and rename it for Aki Kurose, a teacher and peace activist who died in 1998. It wasn't that some new historical discovery had stained Sharples' reputation. It was just that most of the current board members hardly knew who he was. They wanted to redistribute the honor to somebody their constituents had heard of.

Some citizens agreed with the change, while others, including Sharples' grandchildren, thought it was disrespectful. Kurose was a fine person, they conceded, but she had never taught in this particular school and had no connection to the neighborhood. Seattle Times columnist O. Casey Corr wrote that the decision reflected "ignorance" and insensitivity to tradition. "School Board's Clumsy Act Embarrasses and Annoys," the paper's headline proclaimed.

On the question of who is the more deserving honoree, Caspar Sharples or Aki Kurose, I am an agnostic. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of either of them. I merely wish to make the simple observation that if there's one thing we as a society are lousy at, it's naming public facilities after people. We seem to mess the job up more often than we get it right.

When you think about it, naming a school or other public facility after someone who never set foot in the place is an old American tradition. At least Aki Kurose was a resident of Seattle. Much of the time, we don't even come that close.

I am a graduate, for example, of the Bret Harte elementary school in Chicago. As you may recall, Bret Harte was a 19th-century poet and short-story writer whose works focused on the American frontier. He was born in upstate New York, spent his young manhood in California, and ultimately moved to England. He spent little time in the Midwest, and so far as I am aware, never wrote much about it. He had a loyal readership for a while in the 1860s and '70s, but he was certainly no Dickens or Tolstoy. So how did he end up with his name on a building at 56th and Stony Island Avenue in Chicago? No one could ever tell me.

My daughters are graduates of the Zachary Taylor Elementary School, in Arlington, Virginia. This is an interesting case. Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the United States, was in fact descended from a long line of Virginia planters. But his father left the state the year Zachary was born. The future president spent significant periods of his life in Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, practically every Southern state, as a matter of fact, except Virginia. And yet it is his portrait that hangs in a place of distinction outside the principal's office.

But honoring locally irrelevant historical personages such as Harte and Taylor is at least interesting in a quirky sort of way. Most of the time, naming decisions are not only irrelevant but completely unimaginative. We react to the martyrdom of national figures by pasting their names on the front of every public facility we can find. No one would dispute the public appeal of John F. Kennedy, the sincerity of the grief over his murder, or the desirability of memorializing him. But there is also no disputing that we overdid it. Airports, schools, freeways, stadiums--some cities have one of each of these named for JFK, to the point of confusion. It is hard to see how the practice of posthumous excess adds to the dignity of anyone's memory, no matter how great he or she may have been.

I would insist on the same point, perhaps a little more gingerly, about the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In the first few years following his assassination, the government of virtually every large American city voted to rename a major thoroughfare in the black section of town in King's honor. All of these decisions were understandable, and none were inappropriate. But it does King no disservice to point out that in every one of these cities, there was a local African-American public figure for whom the naming of a street or a school would have provided a genuine community history lesson, rather than merely adding one more gesture to the endless list.

We make a hash of the commemorative-naming business in this country because, fundamentally, we are an ahistorical people. We have a nagging sense that we ought to pay some homage to departed role models, but we don't take the job seriously enough to do it well.

If you want to know what it might be like to live in a place that does take it seriously, visit Paris sometime. A street map of Paris is a history lesson in itself, and a pretty commanding one. There are streets named after literary figures (Rue de Tocqueville, Boulevard Diderot), streets named after politicians (Avenue Winston Churchill, Place Clemenceau), streets named after military events (Quai d'Austerlitz, Place de Stalingrad), even streets named after dates of military events (Place du 18 Juin 1940, Place du 11 Novembre 1918). Outstanding figures get the honors they deserve--but not endless repetition. There is one Rue Bonaparte in Paris, on the Left Bank. One is enough; it does the job. More would be unnecessary.

American communities and local governments go through the motions of using their naming power to teach history, but then they forget about it. That's what happened to poor Caspar Sharples in Seattle. Sometimes it happens to people while they are still alive. I once knew a retired professor at a public university who had been granted the honor of having a student lounge named after him. When I asked him if he ever visited the lounge, he told me had had stopped going, because on his last visit, nobody had recognized him and he had been ordered to leave. Somehow I don't think that would happen at a university in France.

If we find it difficult to handle the job of public commemoration in an appropriate way, maybe we should just stop trying. Maybe we should use our naming rights for some other purpose--such as making money. We could sell the names of streets and schools to the highest bidder, creating a new entry in the guidebooks of entrepreneurial government.

I think I mean this as a joke, but I'm not entirely sure. I never thought I would see the day when the names of stadiums and football bowl games were changed over and over again depending on who offered management the biggest bribe. But then, one New Year's Day, I turned on the TV set and found myself watching the Poulan Weed Eater Independence Bowl. If a football game can be named after a grass trimmer, anything is possible.

How much harm would it really do if a struggling factory town in Ohio changed the name of Washington Street to Snackwell Boulevard, and raked in every dollar Nabisco was willing to pay for the privilege? Or what would be so terrible about rechristening the courthouse square as Dr. Scholl's Plaza? The revenue potential here is staggering. If local governments made a serious move in this direction, I'm not sure they'd have to worry much about taxing the Internet. Whenever they found the fisc depleted, they could just rename another high school. It would be years before all the choice opportunities were used up, and by then, they could just start selling the same ones all over again.

Okay, I'm kidding. I don't really want to do this. In fact, I think it's a disgusting idea. Streets, schools and public facilities are precious community assets, links to our common culture and tradition. Treating them as marketable assets is highly offensive, no matter how lucrative it might be.

But since virtually all of us feel this way, it might not be a bad idea to devote a little more thought to managing the commemorative process in an intelligent way. Every community in America, no matter how small, has produced an ample supply of genuine civic role models. In honoring them--during their lifetimes, if possible--we make an important statement about local tradition and the intangible rewards of civic service. We should take pains to choose the right people, and to tell everyone in the community the story of why we are choosing them.

And then, instead of just forgetting about it, we should make sure that as the years go by, we keep on telling the story. So that, 30 or 40 years down the road, a future city council or school board doesn't say: "Sharples? Never heard of him. Must have died ages ago. Let's change the name."

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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