As someone who worked in the newspaper business for 30 years, I appreciate it now and then when someone on the other end of a phone call asks me to spell my name. Sure, “Don Walker” sounds simple enough, but who’s to say my parents didn’t get crazy and throw a silent “H” in there somewhere or go all 60’s whacko, making the “o” in Don a peace sign or something. You want me to spell Don Walker, well, by God, here goes: D-o-n W-a-l-k-e-r.
At The Times in Shreveport, an energetic summer intern sat at a desk across from mine in the newsroom and he said this to me one evening: “Mr. Walker, you’ve been in this business a while. What’s the best tip you’d give to someone like me? Someone who’s just starting out?”
Without hesitation I told him, “Spell the name right.”
He repeated it out loud: “Spell the name right.” Then he said, “And why do you say that?”
“Because you can write an article about someone and question their motives, their actions and their morals, you can even go so far as to say they’re stupid,” I said. “But if you spell their name wrong, they’ll call you up and tell you you’re stupid. And then you get to write a correction, which essentially tells everyone you did something stupid – that you failed to ask someone a basic question like, ‘How do you spell your name?’ – even though you were asking all of those other questions for your news story.”
I’m not even kidding you that within the next day or two he had to write a correction for spelling someone’s name wrong. Wonder where he is today?
No one’s perfect, though, so I’ll fess up that I’ve had my share of “fails.” I wrote a story about a guy who turned a family business into a multi-million-dollar distribution center and the copy desk inadvertently ran a picture of the guy’s twin brother by mistake. Then, in the next day’s paper, we ran a correction using the right picture, but I spelled the guy’s name wrong – in the correction! And very likely my most embarrassing screw up was a profile story I had written on former Shreveport National Weather Service Meteorologist-In-Charge Ernest Ethridge. He was such a wonderful, knowledgeable man and always willing to help a reporter tell a good weather story. During my interview, I asked him the cliché question no journalist should ever ask, “What would you want written on your headstone?” Instead of pushing me out of his office, he indulged me instead, saying, “I guess I’d just want it to have my name spelled right.” Perhaps you can see where this is going. Sure enough, when the article ran on Feb. 14, 1988, this is what appeared in the paper under my byline: “I guess I’d just want it to have my name spelled right,” Etheridge said. ETHERIDGE!!!! When I called him to apologize, he laughed heartily and said he thought I’d done that on purpose. Sorry, I’m not that brilliant.
So I mentor from experience: Spell the name right.
Which brings me back to the phone call in which a reporter from Orlando asked me to spell my name, and I did. And like I always do, I stumbled over the first letter of my last name, “Walker.” They used to poke fun at President George W. Bush, calling him “Dubya” because of the way he dumbed down the letter “W.” The standard pronunciation of “W” merely duplicates the same pronunciation as “U,” as in “double U.” But I have as hard a time saying “Double U, as in W,” as I do saying “Rural,” as in “He lives in a ‘rural area.’“ When I say it, it comes out as “Ru-ull area.” I could be gliding right along in a sentence, but I hit a roadblock at the word “Rural.” And, when it comes to spelling my name, “D-o-n” is fluid, but I seem to hit the alphabetical pause button before the “Double U” rolls off my tongue. It just doesn’t work for me to have so much emphasis on the “U” when there’s no “U” in my name at all. Maybe my parents should have thrown an ‘H” in there somewhere.
And that’s where this write-up was really heading because I was looking up someone on Facebook today, and he was nowhere to be found. He was an intern for me when I worked as the Natchitoches Bureau Chief for The Times back in 1984-85. This lanky kid bounced into my office one day, introduced himself as a journalism student from then-NSU, and asked if he could intern for me. I was a lowly bureau chief in an office with two desks and two chairs. I asked to see some of his write-ups, and told him I’d give him a shot. His name was Russell Dangeleisen, which was pronounced like “Dangle-Eye-Zen.” It’s a German name and I know I’m spelling it correctly because I heard him spell it a million times at the end of virtually every phone call he’d make.
“Can you tell him Russell Dangeleisen called.”
There would be a long pause in which, without a doubt, the person on the other end of the line was suddenly flummoxed and speechless.
And this always followed: “Dangeleisen … D-a-n-g-e-l-e-i-s-e-n.”
So, every now and then, when someone asks me to spell my name, I’ll kid them and say, “Don Walker … that’s D-a-n-g-e-l-e-i-s-e-n.”