I am not Gordon Smith. My name is Doug.
My father is Gordon. This is the story of why I am using his name.
The short version of the story is that he gave me his name, right there in the middle: Douglas Gordon Smith. But he called me “Doug,” and so did everyone else until I was 22 years old. That’s when I started telling people to call me “Gordon.”
That’s the short version of the story. Now the unabridged version.
This past summer I received an email that began as follows: “Dear Mr Smith: How are you? I don’t think you go by Doug any more so I thought I would address you like your students!!!”
Well, that’s a bit awkward. The email was from a high school classmate, who was providing me with information about an upcoming reunion. “Doug Smith” graduated from Osseo-Fairchild High School in 1980, but he went off to BYU and joined the Mormons.
When I decided to join the Church, I undertook a fairly substantial process of personal change. In the year following my baptism and over the course of my mission, I developed new habits of thought and action, and when I returned from my mission to Osseo, Wisconsin, I felt uncomfortable. “Doug” from Osseo didn’t exist anymore.
Still, it didn’t occur to me to change my name until I met a young woman at BYU with two names. Some people called her one name, and others called her another. She explained that she was in the process of changing her name, and she would really appreciate me calling her by her “new” name, which was her middle name. No problem, happy to oblige.
Is that all there is to it? Just tell people, “Call me [Whatever],” and it happens! This was a revelation to me. I didn’t have to be “Doug Smith” anymore. I could be anything I wanted! (“From now on, call me Nuwanda.”) After much contemplation, I decided that using the name “Gordon” would not only be simple, but would honor my father. I was half right.
Changing my name was a tremendous hassle. My wife was fine with it and I didn’t ask my family or hers to change, so I am still “Doug” when we visit relatives. The real challenge was among my friends. The first class at BYU where I announced to the professor that I would like to be called “Gordon” was embarrassing. By that time, I was well into my major and many of my classmates looked at me expectantly, waiting for the punchline. In another class, so many people knew me by Doug that I simply couldn’t change. My co-workers and supervisors in the Reading and Writing Center split about evenly between those who made the adjustment and those who couldn’t. It was hard on people.
Several times during the first few months, I considered abandoning my project. In conversation, I stumbled over my new name. More than once I failed to acknowledge people who called me “Gordon.” People laughed at me. I experimented with new signatures. I changed my driver’s license. I learned to fill out forms with blanks for “First Name, M.I., Last Name.”
At the same time, I was surprised to discover that when people called me “Gordon,” it felt different than being called “Doug.” Over time, I came to associate “Gordon” with my Mormon personality and “Doug” with my pre-Mormon life.
Many women and some men have a name-changing experience via marriage. Does changing your last name in this context have the same sort of effect as changing my first name had on me? Does it distinguish your single personality from your married personality?
I have sometimes thought about my experiences in connection with scriptural accounts of people changing their names (or having their names changed for them). Abram to Abraham, for example. We tend to view Abraham’s experience as having symbolic importance to his people and to us, but I suspect that it was even more important to Abraham, reminding him that his life was different as “Abraham” than it had been as “Abram.”