A friend came over to dinner the other night and we subsequently discovered that her mother’s family and I share the same last name: Hawkins.
I also share the same last name with a number of terrific athletes, musicians, and celebrities going back to the great basketball player Connie Hawkins.
In fact, if you go to Ranker.com, there is a list called “Famous People With the Last Name Hawkins.”
I am not on it.
If you don’t know Ranker, they have a gazillion lists on which ordinary people with no intelligence whatsoever can vote people, places and things up and down lists — on a whim.
That said, I’m ok with the first three people on the Hawkins list, in descending order: Australian model Jennifer Hawkins, British actress Sally Hawkins, and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins.
Considering that Jennifer Hawkins is also ranked highly on Ranker’s list of the most beautiful women in the world, and considering that young adult males are big players on participatory sites like this one, I’d say her rank at the top is quite secure.
Long live the queen!
Connie Hawkins is No. 4 and that is cool since he is now 76 and his glory days are long ago.
At No. 6, the wonderful singer Sophie B. Hawkins who stole my heart when I first heard her sing “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover.” So smitten was I that, when I interviewed her, it never occurred to me to correct the grammar in her song’s title.
I had never heard of Jack Hawkins (English actor at No. 7) until I saw “Bridge over the River Kwai.” That made me a fan — not a relative.
These musical heroes are all on the list: Jazz saxman Coleman Hawkins, rock n’ roll screamin’ demon Screaming Jay Hawkins, rockabilly warbler Ronnie Hawkins, swamp-rocker Dale Hawkins, gospel musician Edwin Hawkins, big band leader and trumpeter Erskine Hawkins.
I am related to none of them.
But every one of them opened a window onto a unique type of music. Growing up, I read all their biographies, listened to their music, and then branched out to hear their contemporaries.
One on Ranker who I never pursued, as much as I love his name, was country crooner Hawkshaw Hawkins.
I used to get that reference tossed at me a lot growing up, mostly by people my parents’ age.
The other stream of conscious blurt from people I have just met is “Ay, young Jim Hawkins” (usually pronounced “Arkins” by witty people) from “Treasure Island.”
I always respond humorously, “No, that would be my older brother. His name is Jim.”
But here’s the thing: Hawkins isn’t really my last name.
Or, it wasn’t until my immigrant Irish ancestors arrived in America.
The origins story
We came to the United States bearing the name Hoggins. Or maybe O’Hogen. Or some variation. It all depends on who is telling the family’s founding story.
We were stone cutters who migrated — briefly to Scotland, where we were horse thieves, according to family lore.
Then rather quickly, in the middle of the night, to America.
That apocryphal first relative, fresh off the boat, got a job in Boston cutting stone. Legend has it, when he went to pick up his first pay packet, the name Hawkins was written on it.
“But the name is O’Hogen,” he protested
“Not if you want to keep working here,” said the English foreman. “We don’t hire the Irish.”
Do you let your family starve or do you suck it up?
Was the foreman a good man helping a sod out — or one of those “Make America Great Again” assholes?
He certainly knew the score — nobody hired the dirty Irish immigrants. But he most likely valued skilled cutters. So practicality won out over prejudice. Perhaps.
And the name Hawkins has stuck to this day.
This relative later went blind when stone shards cut his eyes. He migrated to Buffalo N.Y. where he opened up a grocery store with the help of his wife. He would sit out front and make brooms, which were sold in the store.
Finding relatives in surprising places
Late in their days, my parents went to Ireland in search of relatives. I think it was O’Hogens they were seeking and in County Cork.
One evening, they were driving from one city to the next. It grew dark and foggy. My father (also Robert J. Hawkins) said he took a wrong turn and drove to the end of a small peninsula where they found a little village by the sea.
He went into the village’s only pub to seek directions. He told the bartender about their quest and the man laughed.
“You’re not lost, my friend. Half the people in this town are named O’Hogen!”
And that may or may not be exactly how it happened.
In the absence of a family historian, my kin have filled the void with some pretty fabulous tales.
Then there were the Reuters
Especially on my mother’s side.
She was a Reuter. But not just any Reuter.
She was descended from every famous Reuter who ever existed, according to my Grandmother Agnes, who lived well into her 90’s and swore that her hair was naturally black, right up to the end.
When I began my career as a newspaper writer, my grandmother would send news clippings about the Reuters News Service and its founder German-born Paul Julius Reuter. “You are related!” she wrote several times in the margins.
What budding young newspaper writer wouldn’t want to be related to the creator of the first wire service in the world? What a legacy.
And I used it shamelessly, dropping the name in conversation with my colleagues.
The message was obvious — I’m not just a rookie. Newspapers are in my blood, my heritage.
It was like the nouveau riche buying Ralph Lauren clothes in the 1980s in order to suggest the blood in their veins runs blue. I know, because I was a big Ralph Lauren fan. Loved my tweeds and button-down Oxford pin-stripe shirts with khakis.
As it turns out, Reuter’s name wasn’t even Reuter. It was Israel Beer Josaphat. His father was a rabbi in Germany. Israel changed his name to Reuter when he migrated to England and converted to Christianity.
So, I’m a little suspect of the lineage.
Now, at least.
My grandmother also claimed title to two Reuter brothers who grew up to become the chief rabbi and the mayor of Hamburg, Germany. Possibly, though I can find no such reference.
Regardless, they weren’t related to Paul Julius Reuter/Israel Beer Josaphat.
Nor sadly, I suspect, am I.
The dark side of the family mythology
There is one Reuter to whom I am definitely related. He was my mother’s uncle, first name unknown to me.
He was a gold prospector in Death Valley, California, who came to a mysterious and untimely end.
Yes, that is another way of saying, “the body was never found.”
Or, in this case, most of it.
Let’s just come right out and say it: My Great Uncle Reuter was murdered by the infamous scoundrel Death Valley Scotty sometime after the turn of the 20th Century.
According to my family.
Scotty was a man with a talent for mythologizing his own life, something he likely learned during his years with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
After years of mostly fruitless grubstaking, Scotty planted a story from Philadelphia claiming that a pillowcase filled with gold dust was stolen from a private Pullman car somewhere between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It mentioned that he was the owner of a goldmine in Death Valley. The story went viral.
According to Hank Johnston in “Death Valley Scotty, the Man and the Myth, Scotty used the notoriety to attract investors — especially those who believe lightning always strikes twice.
He hooked up with men of money in Chicago and with a nice advance and a partner headed for the minefields of Nevada and Death Valley. Only, Johnson says, Scotty kept going with the money until he reached Los Angeles where he enriched the lives of saloon keepers, dance hall girls, swank hoteliers, and gamblers.
Family lore says Scotty and my uncle were gold prospecting partners. They went up into the hills together but only Scotty returned.
It is said that Scotty claimed his partner went stark raving mad one night, ran off from the campfire, and was never found. Scotty searched for days.
Then Scotty came down the mountain with a mule laden down with gold dust.
According to Johnston, Death Valley Scotty’s mines were mostly as phony as he was. The man made his money by luring investors and fleecing them blind.
Even the famous Scotty’s Castle, a landmark tourist attraction to this day, was built with the money of a Chicago insurance and banking millionaire.
While Johnson names lots of Scotty’s victims and co-conspirators the name Reuter and even the hint of a suspicious death does not come up.
So, I don’t know.
I love the family mythology. It is just that so much of it falls apart under scrutiny.
It is quite likely I had a relative who was a gold prospector in Death Valley and it is quite likely that he died there. A search party supposedly found the remnants of a boot that might have been his — with the bones still inside the boot.
He wouldn’t have been the first greenhorn to run off crazy into the night in one of the hottest places on earth. Nor would he have been the first to be done in by a shady partner who loathed to split the stake.
We’ve all seen these Westerns at the drive-in.