I spend my days teaching at an institution where everyone wants to be remembered. There is a name on virtually everything here at Texas A&M—buildings, classrooms, colleges, departments. I walk by Kyle Field and see them etched into pillars, with dates and accomplishments included, or hanging on banners. All those names represent people who wanted to continue their impact long after they were gone from this campus or from this life. Some have paid dearly for the privilege, and others have simply received it as an honor from others who thought them worth remembering.
I have told many people that it was my goal to have a nameplate with my name on it inside the first stall in the men’s room on the fourth floor of the Mays Business School. That way I knew it would be remembered, because people would regularly spend five minutes staring at it. This has probably been my way of coming to grips with the permanence, or lack thereof, of my career’s impact.
I think what we all hope for is that our lives matter, and that having been here on earth made a difference. Occasionally, amidst all the failures and foibles of everyday life, we are given a glimpse of the idea that, against all evidence, it might be true.
This happened to me fifteen years ago this month when my oldest grandson was born. My daughter and son-in-law gave their first baby Aaron the middle name Michael. This was a double honor since both of his grandfathers are named Michael. Aaron is the kind of young man you want your name attached to, with a ready laugh and a willing heart. He is a great student living out his faith, a center and long snapper for his freshman football team, and a devoted Tennessee Volunteers fan. I was truly honored at the time, but I was 50, with two kids still at home, and far less reflective than I am today at 65.
When Linda and I were in our late thirties, we had our fifth child and second son. We had named our older son for both his grandfathers, and he carried as his first name my father’s name, Kenneth, which is also my middle name. When our younger son was born, Nathan was an easy choice. His name means “gift of God,” and that is exactly what he felt like to us as a couple at that stage in our marriage. But what to do for his middle name? In the end, we chose just as my parents did, to make his father’s first name the son’s middle name.
Well, that little boy grew up, and last week his wife gave birth to a little boy. And they called him Michael. Judah Michael, to be precise. I must admit that tears have welled up in my eyes multiple times just thinking about that. I suppose it’s because of my age and watching the things that have driven me for so long slip quickly into the rear-view mirror. Maybe it is the constant reminder the last year and a half of how precious and fleeting life is, or maybe it was just holding him close to me this week and watching him breathe. But it has caused me to reflect in a new way on the closest thing we have to permanence on this earth, and that is the opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of those who come after us.
I suppose, in many cases, that is what naming is. I realized the other day that all our children and grandchildren have family names as part of their inheritance. Perhaps it is that longing for permanence, that searching for a deep identity, that causes us to do that. It may actually be that it is more than just wanting to be remembered. It is about creating something that lasts. But even if I am not around long enough to get to know Judah, he will ask the question—what was my grandfather Michael like? And my son will tell him stories of knee football games, of pitching practice in the backyard, of high school lunches at Pepe’s, of navigating relationships and the teen years on the way to developing a vision for his life. He will say, “Buddy, you and I have the same middle name!” And as that little boy nods his head, his Daddy’s thoughts will wander to his days as a little boy.
In the Eisenhower fifties, an Irish Catholic mom and a reluctant Protestant father from the greatest generation walked into the antiseptic smell of Mercy Hospital in Baltimore. And a few days later, they walked out with their third son. Their first two sons had family names, and one included the name of a war hero friend. But when it got around to their third, they gave him the father’s name as a middle name. The question was, what do we call him? What will his first name be? As usually happened in that family, where his older brother was named Patrick, the Irish Catholic mother won that argument.
And they called him Michael.