Monday, December 20, 2021

About That Family Name


Kids can get so embarrassed by anything that makes them seem different than their friends. In the case of Marilyn Sowle Bean's husband, apparently it was his own name which embarrassed him. 

Given the name Earle, it seemed to have an extra letter at the end, a pretentious "e" which set him apart. Since Earle had also inherited another detail which made him stand apart from everyone else in school—he was born with Marfan Syndrome, causing his unusual height—he must have figured carving an "e" off his name was far more manageable than shedding a foot off his height. Why draw more attention to oneself than necessary?

Apparently, by the time he was about to turn ten, his maternal grandmother Effie Williams Woodworth had gotten wind of the egregious omission, and wrote to inform him of her displeasure. Her May 15, 1936, letter was sent to the boy barely three years after he had lost his mother—Maude, Effie's daughter—leaving him, along with his brother Sam, to be raised by his blind and deaf father and his paternal grandmother.

The letter may have started out like a typical note from a grandmother, with thanks for a Mother's Day gift he had made her, along with a report on how the weather had been in Oroville, California, where she had moved only the past March. She did not miss an opportunity to gently chide Earle and his brother for not writing her more often, then remind them that their dear departed mother's birthday was coming up a week from the next Sunday.

Then came the lecture.

Now Earle, I see you do not spell your name as it should be. Yours is a family name. That's why your mother named you Earle. Your brother's name was Merle. Please remember your name is Earle.
That last Earle was underlined for emphasis. Effie did not want Earle to miss her point. She then launched into the explanation: her paternal grandmother was an Earle—the twin sister "Merriette" Earle. You could tell she was quite proud of her family heritage—though I suspect her grandson did not appreciate the history lesson about to follow.

The Earles were very aristocratic people so you should feel honored. Your mother would wish you to spell it that way. My father's name was Eugene Earle Williams + where ever there is an Earle in our family it's spelled Earle.

Effie continued to regale her young grandson with examples of others in the extended family whose full name included Earle, then threw in a sentence about how the "Indians" in northern Wisconsin captured some of the Earle family—most of whom subsequently escaped—and then abruptly closed the letter with a cheery, "Well Earle, write again" and signed off "lovingly" as Grandma Woodworth.

I had long heard the story of how Earle had dropped that final "e" in his name over the protests of his grandmother, and now that I've received that package of Marilyn's saved letters, I now can read that note for myself. Saved after all those years, first by Earle himself, then by his wife Marilyn, eighty five years later it has finally made its way to me. Some family stories can be substantiated, but the proof doesn't always come easily.


  1. I am sure that letter has been read aloud many times over the years. She sounds like an intimidating lady!

    1. Well, there is probably a lot to read between the lines on this one, Miss Merry. I never had the chance to meet Effie Woodworth, but her children and in-laws were a pleasure to meet. Even though Earle never did heed her letter--at least, as far as his preferred spelling of his name went--I find it interesting that the letter survived all these years.


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