I was recently going over some older documentation I had gathered about my grandfather, Bill Prettyman (1919–1998) in preparation for writing a biographical sketch of him and I made a charming discovery I’d like to share with you.
I was interviewing my grandfather around 1982, and he relayed a little story I hadn’t thought about much since hearing it from him. Bill said that when his parents took him to the church to be baptized, his parents intended that he should be named “William Frank Prettyman.” His maternal grandfather, F. E. Gores (short for Franz/Frank Eugene Gores, pictured in the thumbnail above) had other ideas. F. E. Gores was apparently a prankster who liked to pull practical jokes. According to Bill, F.E. Gores pulled the priest aside and told him to change the middle name from Frank to Eugene and the priest complied. So ever since, Bill’s middle name was Eugene instead of Frank.
Like so many received stories, this one did not seem to comport well with the facts as I knew them. Bill was born on March 1, 1919, and was baptized on March 7, 1919. It seemed odd to me that his parents would wait a week before naming him, and it seemed odd that they would use the occasion of his baptism to have a priest announce his legal name.
I checked Bill’s birth certificate (shown below) and sure enough, Bill’s current, full, legal name (“William Eugene Prettyman”) was written on his birth certificate, and the certificate had been signed by the physician on March 3rd and filed with the state registrar on March 4th.
As I was about to dismiss the story as apocryphal, I noticed two things. First, Bill’s full legal name was written in a distinctly different handwriting than the rest of the record. And second, the signature of the registrar certifying the record is none other than “F.E. Gores” (and he added “Deputy” in front of Registrar). At the time that F.E. Gores did this, he listed his occupation as “Judge, probate office,” so it is quite likely that he made the necessary arrangements to get himself legally appointed as deputy registrar for this prank.
So it appears that the story was indeed formed around a large kernel of truth, but through retelling it had drifted somewhat from the original story. Bill hadn’t had his middle name changed by the priest at his baptism, but rather by his grandfather on his official birth record 3–4 days after he was born.
My best guess for what happened is that Bill’s parents did not have a name picked out for their child until a couple of days after he was born. They (or a hospital staff member) filled out all sections of the birth record except for the name. Then F.E. Gores asked them for their son’s name and offered to get the record filed for the new couple, since he served as a judge at the County Courthouse. When Bill’s parents gave him the full name they chose for Bill (“William Frank Prettyman”), F.E. Gores didn’t write the name on the record right away. He took it to the courthouse and appears to have had someone else, perhaps his secretary, write out the full legal name of his grandson. And when he recited the name for the person writing it down, he decided to swap “Eugene” for “Frank.” He then took the record to the registrar and asked them a favor—to deputize him as a Deputy Registrar so that he could sign his own grandson’s birth record.
Perhaps he told no one about his ‘practical joke’ for a few days until the day of Bill’s baptism. Bill’s parents would have already told the priest what (they thought) Bill’s full name was, but unbeknownst to them that wasn’t actually Bill’s full legal name. So F.E. Gores pulled the priest aside and let him in on the secret and gave him Bill’s actual full legal name. It’s quite possible that the first time Bill’s parents learned of the middle name switcheroo was when the priest read out Bill’s full name while performing the rite the baptism. During the ceremony, Bill’s parents may have thought the priest just got confused and read the wrong name. And then when was gathered after the ceremony, Bill’s parents may have mentioned “wasn’t that funny that the priest accidentally said your last name instead of ‘Frank’?” At which point, F.E. put on a mischievous smile and said, “well, actually….”.
So that’s my take on how the story came to be. Do you have other ideas? Let me know in the comments below!