Am I unique? Not according to Google
When I was young I thought my name was unique ... because my world extended only as far as the village of Solvay, New York. After my grandparents died in the early 1940s, there was only one other Major family in town, that one was headed by my father's brother, Bill (which gave me two Uncle Bills – one a Major, the other a Smolinski). My father, Buster, a well-known athlete in the area, became the village mayor, Bill Major was a policeman who eventually became chief. (Uncle Bill Smolinski was on the board of education.) Mine was a small world, after all.
The ethnic background of residents of Solvay was – and probably still is – predominately Italian. There also were many Irish-Americans in the village, but they had last names that were obviously Irish.
Major, on the other hand, was considered an adjective or a military rank. People would ask me what kind of name Major was and I'd tell them it was Irish. They'd cock their heads suspiciously. "It doesn't sound Irish," they'd say. "English, maybe, but not Irish."
MY FATHER'S Aunt Liz Major, an eccentric woman who lived 20 miles away in Skaneateles Falls, had concocted a wild tale about an Irish ancestor who, in fact, had no connection with our family until one of his descendants (or, at least, someone with the same last name) married my great-grandfather in the 19th century. Liz didn't care; she insisted Shane O'Neill, the colorful 16th century Irish patriot, had started the Major line.
I didn't challenge Liz, but her attitude toward Shane O'Neill seemed strange for a devout Catholic. Liz seemed proud when she talked of the many children Shane had fathered by several women, some married to other men. Liz's version of history had the armies of Queen Elizabeth I temporarily chasing Shane O'Neill out of England. Liz said Shane escaped to France, fathered more children, then returned to his homeland. One his French daughters married a Frenchman named Majeur, their children moved to Ireland and changed their last name to Major.
The story made no sense, but it was told to me several times. In college I did a tiny bit of research, but the only Majors I uncovered were – you guessed it – English, something my father and his Aunt Liz did not want to hear. I wish both Liz and my father had lived much longer – Liz died in 1971, my father in 1985 – but I'm not sure I'd have wanted them around in 1990. That's when John Major became prime minister of England. For both Liz and my dad, the news might have been fatal.
While attending Kent State University in the 1950s I found myself standing in line at a bank in downtown Kent behind a man named Major, who turned out to be Hungarian. His last name had been shortened when his grandparents arrived at Ellis Island. That was the first Major I'd ever met from outside my family.
Now, of course, we have Google and lots of other Google-like engines that search online. When I went Googling for John and/or Jack Major, the result made me feel insignificant.
My Google research revealed three things:
1. There are many Majors in Northern Ireland, though the name doesn't appear on most websites that list Irish surnames and their origins. My great-grandfather was William James Major (he's the one who married Mary Anne O'Neill) and I found a record of their marriage online – along with about 17 other marriages in Ireland involving men named William Major in the 19th century. There are about as many for men named John Major. If I continued through all of the first names I could come up with, I'd find hundreds of Major marriages.
2. Liz Major may have been correct about the name originating in France, though it apparently was spelled Malgier, not Majeur, and it showed up in Ireland in the 13th century, long before Shane O'Neill came along.
3. Separate from families in Ireland named Major ... or Malgier ... or Mager ... or Mauger (which actually is pronounced "Major"), there were many English families with the name Major, which showed up in England in the 11th century.
Similarly, my mother's maiden name, Smolinski, which once seemed unusual, is fairly common in Poland and not all that rare in the United States.
I ALSO FOUND a bunch of people named Jack or John Major. One Jack Major was a professor of botany at the University of California, Davis. He died in 2001, at the age of 83, having a profound impact on the direction of plant ecology. Or so I read.
Jack Major also was the purchasing manager at Erie Strayer Company in Erie, Pennsylvania. And a boss at Jack Conway & Company, Inc., in Atlanta. And vice president of Major Heating in Denver. Also a policeman in San Diego. Busy fellow, that Jack Major.
Jack Major also is a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Col. Jack Major was a radio comedian and lecturer about the time I was born. My favorite namesake, however, is the man behind the Jack Major School of Motoring in Gloucestershire. I'll look him up if I ever get to England.
Most John Major hits on Google are for the former British prime minister. But there also is a John Major who is president of MTSG, a strategic consulting business specializing in emerging opportunities. In other words, I don't know what the hell this John Major does. (He once was the executive vice president of QUALCOMM, which sounds like an evil computer that triggered a nuclear attack that destroyed the world in a 1980s sci-fi film.)
And had I looked outside Solvay at members of my own family in the Skaneateles-Auburn, New York area, I would have found a few more John (aka Jack) Majors.
But I'm the only Jack Major who lived in Solvay and was the son of Helen and Buster. And bing Buster Major's son, I had no choice but to play sports when I was a kid, and in those days the sports were baseball, football and basketball. My father also bought me boxing gloves and a punching bag. I had several boxing matches with neighborhood boys, and I usually took a pounding. (One older neighbor, Roger Mazzochi, stopped me with one hard punch to the stomach that panicked me into thinking I'd lost the ability to breathe.)
I LIVED on a one-block dead-end street called Russet Lane (which I have seen spelled Russett, but there was only one T on our street sign). Russet Lane was sports central. We had a large group of kids close enough in age to have some kind of a game going almost every day. My math aptitude showed itself early because I was the kid who kept score, starting when I was about eight years old.
Thanks in part to my Aunt Gert Smolinski, I picked up a hobby that is with me to this day. It involves a game, Ethan Allen All-Star Baseball, which enables me to have my own league of major league players whose statistics I dutifully compile.
In high school I played only one sport – basketball – but in my senior year convinced our skeptical football coach that I should keep statistics for his team, something that had never been done before. At Kent State University a few years later, I was the athletic publicity director, then a position for a graduate assistant, and my favorite part of the job was keeping statistics at football and basketball games.
But what I wanted to do, I thought at the time, was write about sports, not play them or compile statistics about them. I had gone to college in Ohio to temporarily separate myself from my parents, but my dream job was to get a job at the Syracuse Herald-Journal (no longer in business) and cover Syracuse University football. I loved watching the Orangemen (now simply the Orange, a whole other story).
And soon I got a job at the Herald-Journal, but not in the sports department, though an understanding city editor named Bill Cotter sent me to SU football games to write "color" or feature stories about the crowd and anything interesting that might have happened off the field. I got to cover some high school football, too.
I LEARNED two important things from my Herald-Journal experience: (1) I wasn't a good news reporter and (2) sports were much more fun to play than to write about. That's when another lifelong interest came to the fore.
One of the fun things about growing up in Solvay in the 1940s and '50s was having a movie theater within walking distance. Those were the days of the double feature and the large downtown movie houses. There were, I think, five theaters in downtown Syracuse. And in those days movies played a couple of weeks in the big theaters, then disappeared until they showed up a month or so later in small theaters scattered around Syracuse and surrounding villages.
When I was young there were two small theaters in Solvay – Allen's and Craig's (or the Community). A larger theater, located at one of the area's first strip malls, would come along in the 1950s, but I became a movie junkie at Craig's which would change its attractions every two or three days, usually a double feature Wednesday and Thursday, another pair of films Friday and Saturday, and perhaps an MGM musical extravaganza Sunday through Tuesday.
My parents, as they grew to trust my judgment, allowed me to see almost every movie that Craig's offered. Of course, sometimes they tagged along or took me with them to one of the Syracuse neighborhood theaters, which is how my father and I saw the excruciatingly dull "The Red Shoes" at the Cameo Theater. My mother enjoyed it; she must have told my father beforehand it was a bloody murder film.
SO IN 1962 when there was an opening at the Akron Beacon-Journal for someone to write for the newspaper's new television magazine, I went for it. The job included interviewing celebrities who appeared on the then-Cleveland-based "Mike Douglas Show." It also included writing descriptions of television programs and compiling listings for the Cleveland and Akron channels. And when the movie critic was on vacation, I'd fill in for him.
I had a few things going for me. While a student at Kent State I had taken editing courses from the Beacon-Journal's managing editor, Murray Powers. I knew the difference between NBC, CBS and ABC. I didn't look disappointed when told my first assignment would involve interviewing Bongo Bailey, a chimpanzee. Which meant my goals did not include winning a Pulitzer Prize.
In short, I got the job. And it was the kind of job that quickly convinced me I had made the right career choice. What came later – planning, editing and layout of the TV magazine was frosting on the cake. Even the one assignment that occasionally bugged me – a page of stories about and contests for children – would become a favorite part of my job when I worked in Providence and created my own page for kids.
The Providence Journal, which introduced me to computers and my beloved Mac, prepared me for a happy retirement because I'm still doing what I enjoy.