I was “Joe” for awhile. In the fourth grade, I think.
It was my choice. I put the name “Lonny” on the shelf.
I’m talking about my public name. What I wanted teachers and fellow students to call me.
I should note we moved a lot when I was young, so a new school gave me a chance to try a new name.
I admit, at times, I thought “Lonny” was kind of weird and I wanted to be more like other kids. And “Joe” was my middle name (not “Joseph”).
What I didn’t know then was the history of that name in our family. A story that should remind us all that names generally are not pulled from a hat. They come with a history that’s worth knowing.
My dad was Stanley Vernon Cain. “Vernon” was never used, often simply a “V,” when appropriate. And “Stanley” was just “Stan.”
Those were the documented names, but most everyone called him “Joe.” That was his family name. “Joe” and me, “Little Joe.”
I was in high school, I think, before I heard the story behind the name. And it was 2011 when Dad actually wrote it all down.
“The main thing that must be told ... is something I have kept locked inside low these many years,” he wrote.
“Although I’m not ashamed of what took place, I have kept it to myself as I have never tried to sound like I was whining, or complaining about my youth. (But maybe it’s about time?)”
Dad recalled when he was 9 years old (1936) and was put in the Glenwood Manual Training School (we grew up calling it the “reform school”).
Long story short: He and his brother, Chuck, “borrowed” a bicycle for the day and returned it. This led to a visit from the town cop, a short stay in a dark cell, then a stern warning from their dad.
Later that summer, both boys were told pressure from someone in town was forcing them to put both boys in the Glenwood school.
What happened in that school was difficult for Dad to talk about.
“I was having a little problem adjusting to the drilling and taunting of the older boys,” he wrote. “I wet my bed, and what followed is what I have kept to myself all these years.
“ … As I came down the stairs to the basement, the cottage mother was scolding me and telling me what I had to do.
“She was telling me I had to rinse out my sheets, put them in a pail, and carry it through the school in my PJs down to the laundry. At this time, I said, ‘I don’t care.’
“Most of the other kids in the basement started hollering, ‘I don’t care. I don’t care.’ They also started calling me other names like ‘Stinky’ and ‘Killer Cain.’
“I done what I was told. I carried the pail all the way down to the laundry. … We all were marched out of the basement and around to the large playground where all the kids had a chance to play until breakfast.
“Upon being dismissed, a lot of the kids knocked me down and started kicking me and calling me names again. (I still have broken blood veins in one of my legs.) It could have been much worse, but a bigger boy that was in high school, pulled them off of me and made them leave me alone.
“This was the end of my problem with wetting the bed. But as time passed, a lot of the kids kept calling me names. My name is “Stanley,” but they found all kinds of ways to say it.
“My brother, Chuck, would tell anyone he heard calling me ‘Killer’ or ‘Stinky,’ that my name was “Joe.” And that name is still with me today.
“Things kinda smoothed out after the first few weeks, and I started to make friends with some of the kids in my cottage. One became my best friend, and helped me to handle being a new kid. He was the only one I really became close to. I named our son after him.”
Dad’s friend was Lonny. That son was me. And that experience put the names “Joe” and “Lonny” on our family tree. We gave one of our sons the middle name “Joseph” to keep it there.
After fourth grade, there was another move. I went back to “Lonny.”
Years later, I tracked down Dad’s friend from the Glenwood school. They talked a bit, but his friend, Lonny, had no memory of Dad. Kind of sad.
Still, I appreciate the significance of their friendship. How he helped my dad. The impact it had. Such that he named his first born son, “Lonny.”
(Funny story: I think I was in high school when I actually looked at my birth certificate and saw my name spelled “Lonnie.” Mom shrugged it off. “Yeah, they spelled it wrong,” she said. So I’ve been using an alias for years.)
The echoes of “Joe” and “Little Joe” around the house have faded. I do have an aunt who still calls me “Little Joe” or “Joe-Joe.”
My wife calls me “Lonny Joe” to accent my family’s Kentucky roots. (And for some reason, our dog is now “Tucker Joe.”)
Now, I am quite content with a name that is a bit unusual.
Content and proud.
• Lonny Cain is the retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa and was a reporter for the Herald-News in the 1970s. Email him at email@example.com or mail to The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.