namesakes

Beth Herrington may occassionally dress up in Victorian-era clothing, but the former school teacher and historian has not done anything (yet) to cause folks to want to remove her name from "Beth Herrington Avenue."

It isn’t uncommon for public facilities to be named after deceased notable citizens. The names of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy, and other presidents have all been applied to various public projects.

But naming things after officials who aren’t yet dead can present problems, especially when those officials later do embarrassing things like make illegal campaign contributions, scuffle with police officers, or bribe other public officials.

According to the Associated Press, communities around the nation have had to deal with such issues. Georgia U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s behavior in Washington, D.C. (scuffling with a Capitol police officer, denouncing former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s refusal of $10 million from a Saudi prince for families of Sept. 11 victims, and accusing former Vice President Al Gore of having a “low Negro tolerance level”) caused a Georgia state lawmaker to propose striking McKinney’s name from a highway running through her former district.

The Ohio University board of trustees removed former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney’s name from an athletic facility after he pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. In South Carolina, former Lt. Gov. Earle Morris Jr.’s name was removed from a stretch of highway after he was convicted on security fraud charges.

Closer to home, Oklahoma Sen. Gene Stipe’s name was removed from a McAlester street after he was convicted of illegal contributing to another politician’s campaign. Stipe is currently under investigation for even more illegal campaign contributions.

“Gene Stipe Boulevard has been changed to Electric Boulevard,” said McAlester city clerk Cora Mddleton. “It was actually Electric Boulevard for many years before it was Gene Stipe Boulevard. But his name was taken off by a vote of the city council – [the removal of Stipe’s name] was brought to them by the people.”

Some states have attempted to deal with such issues legislatively, with varied results. A Georgia legislative committee ruled in 2003 that only people with national or regional recognition who have been out of office for two years or are deceased can be honored by having public facilities named after them. In Arkansas, a proposal this year to prohibit naming public buildings after living public officials never made it out of committee.

Tahlequah has a few streets named after folks who are still alive, including Beth Herrington Avenue. The street runs just east of Cherokee Elementary, where Herrington taught music for 48 years.

All of the recent controversies over public facilities and their still-living namesakes makes one wonder: Does having a street named after her keep Herrington walking the straight and narrow?

“It was named after me because of the years of community service I put in as a teacher,” she said. “And by the time they named a street after me, my character was already very well-developed. Certainly, I wouldn’t want anything to happen that would cause people to be sorry about a street named after me.”

Herrington did point out, however, that the street sign bearing her name on the north end of the Beth Herrington Avenue has either been stolen or knocked down.

“You can’t teach for 48 years without having some people out there who don’t like you,” she said.

The Baker Brothers – attorneys Donn and Tim, and Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilor Bill John – all have Tahlequah streets named after them. But according to their mother, Isabel, that’s not their fault.

Their grandfather named the streets after them, even before those streets were officially annexed into the city.

“When I married into the Baker family, they had 30 or so acres adjacent to the city,” said Isabel. “Mr. Baker and Mrs. Baker were very doting grandparents.”

According to Isabel, she was teaching in Sapulpa when the boys’ grandfather named the streets after them, and the boys were still young when the family moved to Tahlequah.

“We came to town and they had all these signs up there, and we didn’t know anything about it,” said Isabel. “We were somewhat surprised. But where we drew the line was ‘Izzy Avenue.’”

Isabel’s nickname is “Izzy,” and at one point after she, her husband Tim, and the three boys moved to Tahlequah, her father-in-law threatened to name a street after her.

“He told me, ‘You make the best coconut pie, you should have a street named after you,’” recalled Isabel. “And I said, ‘Mr. Baker, please don’t name a street after me. I’ll keep the coconut pies coming, as long as you don’t name a street after me.’”

Isabel said that, so far, her boys haven’t done anything to cause local folks to demand their names be removed from their respective streets. But she did point out one benefit to having streets named after her sons – especially considering they’re politicians and lawyers.

“Those folks who don’t like my boys can always go throw rocks at the signs,” she said. “There’s been a time or two when I’ve wanted to do that myself.”

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