Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Ms. Harold Brown

Yes, that's really her name

        WARSAW, Ky. — You've heard of “A Boy Named Sue.” Now meet a woman named Harold Brown.

        That's Harold Brown Weldon, to be precise, but you can call her Harold Brown. Everyone does. It's a Southern thing.

        “Harold Brown, would you like some more cake?” people were asking at a church dinner the other night.

        All this is perfectly natural to Harold Brown, who is 81 and not a bit manly. On the contrary, she has the warmth and grace of a true Southern lady. Normally, I would call her “Mrs. Weldon,” but this column calls for an exception.

        Harold Brown lives in Gallatin County, Ky. It's a 40-minute drive from Cincinnati, but a giant cultural leap.

        Double first names are common here in the South. The practice dates to the 1800s, when slaves didn't have last names, says Ron Eller, a history professor at the University of Kentucky. Their children were known as “Roberta's Jane,” or “Jim's Johnny,” and the custom spread.

        Southern names also are steeped in family history. Occasionally, history and circumstance collide, with peculiar results for children.

Uncle's namesake
        Harold Brown was born at the height of the 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions.

        On the day before she entered the world, her uncle died of the illness. He was the first Harold Brown, a thirtyish lawyer with a bright political future.

        His wake took place a few houses away from the baby's birth. The new mother, seeking to comfort her grieving parents, named the child Harold Brown. But for the first year, relatives were too sad to say the name. They called her “Baby” instead.

        Every Oct. 28, on the night before her birthday, Harold Brown's grandmother would cry for her lost son. The little girl's celebrations on the next day became Halloween parties, with kids eating cake and running around in sheets, Harold Brown recalls.

Culture shock
        She was smart. After graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago, she enlisted in the Army and went to work in Washington during World War II. Her job involved decoding Japanese communications.

        Returning to Gallatin County, Harold Brown met and married her husband, Thomas Weldon. He became a psychiatrist, and the couple lived in Fort Mitchell for 30 years. They raised five children.

        “I had a culture shock when I went to Covington,” Harold Brown says. “I'd never heard of goetta, living 35 miles away.”

        In the South of her youth, wedding receptions involved tea and dainty sandwiches. In Cincinnati, it was potato salad, ham and beer.

        “I thought it was a picnic,” Harold Brown says.

        Then, of course, there was her name.

        People always asked a barrage of questions. To minimize her trouble, she started signing checks as “Mrs. Thomas Weldon.”

        She never had any nicknames. “Harry” or “Hal B.” would have been just as strange, without the poetry.

        There's a certain rhythm to “Harold Brown,” you see. People say the first name quickly, like “Harld,” and put the emphasis on the second.

        “Harld Brown.”

        It's the rhythm of affection and history and familiarity between friends. It is, quite wonderfully, a Southern thing.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at