What’s In A Name?

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My maiden name was Little, a moniker that I milked for a very long time because I was under five feet tall until my junior year in high school. I’d tell people that they would remember my name just from looking at me. It was a bit of humor that actually worked and made me a somewhat unique. It was not until I was an adult that I learned from my grandfather how our family actually got the handle.

My paternal grandfather was born William Mack. His mother died within days of his birth and his father decided that fatherhood was not a good fit, and so Grandpa went to live with his grandmother. Sadly she was advanced in age and when he was thirteen she died leaving him orphaned for all intents and purposes. She left him a small amount of money that required a guardian, and so he ended up in family court choosing the person whom he believed would do the best job of protecting his interests. Since his father had shown given little or no attention to my grandfather’s welfare up until that point, it was decided that an uncle would assume responsibility for both my grandfather and his inheritance.

Grandpa told me that his uncle was an honorable man who graduated from West Point. His name was John Little and he had a grand if short lived military career. In the early 1900’s there was a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico and Captain Little was sent to head the recovery efforts. He was doing a yeoman’s job until he contracted typhus which unfortunately was fatal. By then my grandfather was a full fledged twenty one year old adult so he no longer required his uncle’s guidance, but he still felt a strong sense of gratitude toward the man who had helped him to reach the age independence. To honor the good man Grandpa had his name officially changed to William Mack Little.

I haven’t been able to find any information about my grandfather on ancestry.com, but I have learned that John Little was born in Tennessee. After attending West Point he married a niece of General Sherman of Civil War fame. The two of them had a daughter but their happy life together was brief. I’ve contacted members of his family to see if anyone ever heard of his guardianship of my grandfather, but nobody knows of any such thing. I suppose the history of his relationship to me has somehow been lost, a reality that pains me. It also saddens even more me to think of how many losses my grandfather had to endure before he was even fully launched into the adult world. He never knew his mother. He was abandoned by his father. His beloved grandmother died when he was just entering adolescence, and the man that he most admired died far too early. 

John Little’s obituary outlines his service to his country. It mentions that his career was promising before his sudden demise. He is buried at Governor’s Island New York on the ground of the West Point Military Academy. I would very much like one day to visit the grave of the man who so impressed my grandfather that we ended up carrying his name.

We’ve struggled a bit to keep our last name going, because only one of the youngest male descendants has married and had children, three of whom are girls. There is a lone boy who will continue forward as a Little and I would like very much to one day be able to tell him how he came to have that name. I think he would bear it even more proudly if he knew of the honor bestowed upon it by my grandfather’s uncle.

There must be other Littles out there who are distantly related to me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. They don’t know us and we don’t know them. Our connections are lost to unfortunate circumstances and time. Still, it would be fun to find out who they are and to speak of the gratitude that my grandfather had for a long ago member of their family.

A name is little more than a string of letters unless it is attached to someone that we can identify. I feel a sense of pride in knowing what I do about John Little. I can imagine him toiling in the tropical heat of Puerto Rico to help the people of the devastated island. There is something particularly noble about that, much more so than fighting on a battlefield. I’m sure that he saved many lives before he became ill. His was an enormous sacrifice that makes me proud to continue to use his name as the middle part of my own. I somehow feel as though I know and understand him.

His photo shows a handsome, serious individual, but I suspect that he also had a sense of humor and enjoyed a good laugh now and again. How good of him it was to agree to be the guardian of an orphaned boy. Little wonder that my grandfather admired him so. I’d like to think that somehow, some way he knows that I too appreciate all that he did.

I now understand that Little is a grand name, the name of a hero, a compassionate man. It makes me hold my head a bit higher. It tells me why my own grandfather was such an honest and hard working man. In a brief moment he learned the qualities of an exceptional person from an uncle who was there when he was most needed. Thank you, John Little. We will never forget you. 

John Little

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