When my very Norwegian mother was selling ads for the Chicago Daily News in the 1930’s, the company assigned her the name “Miss Kelly.” This was so that irate or flirtatious customers could not track her to her home address. How different from today when people will tell 350 million total strangers every bit of their so-called private lives on their Facebook pages!
Obviously there are sound commercial reasons for changing a name. Would you flaunt a polo shirt from Lifshitz? Fraydl and Frank Lifshitz were immigrants from Belarus and named their son Ralph Ruben Lifshitz. But he changed his name to Ralph Lauren to sell his wildly successful ultra-preppie clothing line emblazoned with polo ponies. According to Forbes, Ralph “Lauren” is the 224th richest man in the world worth $2.8 billion (tied with Georgio Armani, after Steven Spielberg and before Oprah Winfrey), so it was a very smart move.
Would earnest anti-war protesters want to hear from Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota? How about Bob Dylan from Greenwich Village? When his parents emigrated from Odessa in Russia, they were named Zimmerman, but as Bob “Dylan” he became the voice of a generation and won world-wide fame and fortune.
But sometimes there are more serious reasons for changing a name. When my best friend Barb was the manager of the cosmetics department in the glory days of Marshall Field’s department store, a tough part of her job was being the Rules Police for the 124 people who reported to her. This meant she had to write up employees for minor infractions of company policies like not wearing their name badge that would say “Miss Pierce.” In those days the sales associates were professionals and always referred to by their last names.
One day she saw one of her most reliable saleswomen who had replaced her badge that should have her last name (Silverman) with only her first name (Joyce), so Barb had to call her in to the office to review the rules. The saleswoman Joyce said someone had called her a name for being Jewish. She said “I don’t want my name in his mouth…on his tongue. I’m proud of my name but it shouldn’t be in his mouth.”
There was also a rule that everyone had to sign in by name and their employee number so that payroll could separate the people with the same names, like the three men named Mike Adams. She had a guy working in the stockroom who would never use his employee number. The policy said that she had to get him to use his number.
Barb recalls, “But when I called him in to talk about this, he showed me a number burned into his arm from a World War II Concentration Camp. He said he would no longer be a number.” She asked payroll to give him an exemption and they did. He didn’t have to sign in with his number like every other employee. In fact, they discovered they had four employees who had been in concentration camps, and granted all four survivors the right to skip the number at sign in.
The best sermon I ever heard was called “There are no secular jobs.” Pastor Steve Dahl, preaching at the Historic Methodist Campground of Des Plaines, said that although most people think that ministers and rabbis are the ones to care for people, actually every person in every job can help people get more peace in their lives. Because she was such a good listener, the lifelong Methodist Barb was able to comfort an employee who had been hurt by anti-Semitic remarks and to change the company policy for holocaust survivors. You might not think of the cosmetics counter as the place to do justice work, but why not? And why not where you work?
Joan Flanagan is the Fundraiser for the Center for New Community. Barbara Pierce was one of “Field’s Finest” employees from 1972 to 2007 and is now proud to be a monthly donor to the Center for New Community.