Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Memorial Interchange

Naming roads after people is a common way of honouring their memory. You can find stretches of interstate named after someone, such as Carl Sanders Highway, the name for part of I-20 in Georgia (called after a former governor of the state). One thing that I have only noticed fairly recently, however, is the naming of interchanges in memory of someone. It seems to be common in South Carolina, through which I have driven frequently in the past three years along I-20 and I-77.

For some reason, the one that sticks out in my mind is the F. W. "Billy" Caughman Memorial Interchange. It appears to have been so designated in 2003 in memory of the "community, civic, and political impact" that he made "on the city of Lexington and Lexington County." It has successfully preserved his name, although I have no idea who he was or what exactly he did -- the only person of that name that I found on the internet is a 15-year-old on MySpace, also from Lexington, SC, presumably a descendant.

There is something ludicrous about naming an interchange after someone, and it doesn't help that this particular one uses the person's formal initials along with his nickname in quotation marks. Would it have seemed disrespectful for them just to call it the Billy Caughman Memorial Interchange?

It is possible that the South Carolina legislature has resorted to naming interchanges because they ran out of more conventional things with which to memorialize people -- all the good ones were taken, in other words. This became something of an issue at the residential college where I lived while a student at the University of Virginia. At the time I stayed there, it was called "Monroe Hill Residential College," so named because James Monroe owned the plot of land at one point. Shortly after I graduated, someone donated a large sum of money to the university on the condition that it rename the location to Brown College. The university accepted -- who can turn down money? -- but tried to placate traditionalists (which means everyone in Virginia) by calling it "Brown College at Monroe Hill."

If this is a problem for the University of Virginia, it is an even bigger problem for Yale, which is more than a century older. I say "problem," but really it is an opportunity. Yale has adopted the practice of appending additional names to its buildings, such that many of them now have hyphenated titles. My favourite is Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona. Now that is a name that says, "We are a very old and very famous university. We have so many famous people to name buildings after that we have to stack them on top of one another. Moreover, our famous people have names like Sheffield, Sterling, and Strathcona, which are upper class names, not boring common names like Brown, Smith, and Jones." Compare this to the University of Illinois, a fine institution (from which I hold my Ph.D.), whose main library is still called...the Main Library. Surely there must be some person, either a famous graduate or a wealthy donor, after whom the university could name arguably its most important building? Or perhaps it resists giving it a specific name in respect to its egalitarian mission, one of the original land-grant universities whose motto is not some high-sounding Latin phrase but rather the simple "Learning and Labor."

I think we can all agree that a library would be a fine thing to have named after one. Interchanges, however, are a more dubious proposition, and I say this without wishing to cast any aspersions upon the memory of F.W. "Billy" Caughman, whatever he may have done. So if, after I die, someone comes up with the idea of preserving my name (a doubtful premise, I admit) on some interchange, rest stop, or weigh station, let me save them the trouble by declaring that it is an honour that I would be just as happy to do without.

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