A few simple rules can help avoid the embarrassment of namesakes' outliving the appropriateness of the honors.
When famed cyclist Lance Armstrong finally broke down and admitted cheating during his entire career—and lying about it every kilometer of the way—some half-a-dozen public schools had to change their name. If nothing else, Armstrong’s plunge from grace reaffirmed my No. 1 Rule of Naming Stuff: Don’t name anything after a living person.
Every time I exit 71 Highway at Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, I can empathize with the principal of Lance Armstrong High. Even if Cleaver’s business deals were something other than squalid, I ask myself, should we really have named a boulevard after a car wash owner?
Then too, what’s with the “Emanuel” thing? Did Rockhill and Van Brunt not have first names? And is it just me or does the designation “II” drive everyone bonkers? Isn’t the street name long enough without a Roman numeral at the end, let alone a bogus one like “II?”
Now for Rule No. 2: The younger the honoree, the more risk the naming body runs. The University of Missouri learned this lesson the hard way a few years back. With more than a little prompting from her parents, MU chose to name its brand-new sports arena after 22 year-old Wal-Mart heiress Paige Laurie.
Young Paige had no sooner cut the ribbon on the eponymous, $75 million Paige Sports Arena than her college roommate chose to rat her out. Apparently, Paige had paid her roomie $20,000 to do her class work, a no-no even at USC, O.J.’s alma mater. Not exactly shy, the roommate shared this information with ABC’s 20/20; thus was promptly christened “Mizzou Arena.”
In their defense, the Lauries at least put up $25 million for the arena and let the university keep it even after the public shaming. Cleaver has not contributed so much as a free car wash for the upkeep on his boulevard.
This brings me to Rule No. 3. Never name anything after a political figure, living or dead, not named Lincoln or Washington. This rule was widely ignored back in the day when some paleo-Kansas Citians named their county after Andrew Jackson.
OK, Jackson did found the Democratic Party, but he also married a woman still married to someone else, shot people who protested, sold slaves, and did the ribbon-cutting for the Trail of Tears. Jackson had his virtues to be sure, but I wonder which ones exactly the Democrats honor on Jackson Days.
If that weren’t enough, 23 other states have a “Jackson County.” Couldn’t we have thought of something more imaginative? Can’t we still? Hell, I’d go with Paige Laurie County if her folks would put a down payment on sewer repair.
In the spirit of bi-partisanship, I confess my unease when driving over the Christopher S. Bond Bridge. Although I voted for the guy multiple times—in the Republican spirit, only once per election—the more openly he defined himself as “Pork King,” the harder it got for me to pull the lever.
In fact, it was Bond’s role as porkmeister that inspired MoDOT to scrap the old “Paseo Bridge” signs and post his. The total project cost $245 million. Bond’s contribution was to get Washington to pay for Missouri’s problems. Thank you, Kit. I’m glad I don’t pay federal taxes. How about renaming the Bond Bridge in Hermann in recognition of George Washington Johnson, who helped build the original and inspired the new bridge.
Rule No. 4 is a refinement of No. 3: If there is a choice, name stuff after the people doing the actual work. Bond served 24 years in the U.S. Senate. I don’t know how much he nets today in pension, but I suspect it is a lot more than the salaries of the guys who were falling off the pylons and getting hammers dropped on their heads building his bridge.
The late State Sen. Harry Wiggins served 28 years. For 25 years, James and Pamela Ashley “struggled and sacrificed” to preserve the trolley right-of-way that cuts through the Brookside neighborhood. After sweating bullets to keep the pathway intact, they sold it to the Kansas City Area Transit Authority.
The KCATA then named the resulting Trolley Track Trail not after the Ashleys but after Wiggins, “who throughout his years representing the 10th district, sponsored KCATA’s tax legislation.” That’s it? For their efforts, the Ashleys got a plaque.
In Kansas City, we know enough not to name stuff after Hitler’s pals, but we have not extended that bit of wisdom to other mass murderers. This leads to Rule No. 5, which is not as self-evident as it might seem: Don’t name stuff after people who have killed—let’s be generous here—more than, say, 10 million of their fellow citizens.
UMKC still hosts the Edgar Snow Exhibit and partners with the Edgar Snow Memorial Foundation. Unfortunately for Snow’s memory, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the authors of the definitive biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, explain how Mao used Snow’s reporting to advance his revolution.
If the UMKC Exhibit portrays Snow as the “man who first told the true story of those times,” Chang and Halliday paint him as a “useful idiot,” the slur Lenin assigned to westerners so willfully blind they couldn’t recognize the truth if they tripped over it. In the Lenin “big lie” tradition, claim the authors, Mao fed Snow a goulash of useful facts and “colossal falsification,” which the hungry reporter “swallowed in toto.”
So persuasive was Snow’s disinformation, however, that America eventually lost the will to defend China from the Communists. In time, we yielded the whole of mainland China to three more decades of Mao’s homicidal madness and three more decades after that of Tiananmen Square-style mayhem. Other than losing China, though, Snow was an OK guy.
By the time Josef Stalin died in 1953, no sentient adult could have failed to understand the depths of his depravity—none, of course, but the winner of the 1952 Stalin Peace Prize, American athlete and entertainer Paul Robeson.
“Yes, through his deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves a rich and monumental heritage,” Robeson eulogized his beloved Uncle Joe. “He leaves tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief.” Stalin also plowed tens of millions under that same earth.
Kansas City educators chose to ignore Stalin’s infamy and honor Robeson’s useful idiocy by naming a middle school after him. On the positive side, they ran the school district as badly as Stalin did his collective farms, and Robeson Middle shut its doors 10 years ago.
Now about that proposed Kathleen Sebelius Middle School in Lawrence …