Posted 4/5/22

WOODWORKING Yelloh?! I just read a column by my old friend and colleague James Lileks from the Star Tribune expressing surprise that the famous food distributing company, Schwan’s, was now going by …

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I just read a column by my old friend and colleague James Lileks from the Star Tribune expressing surprise that the famous food distributing company, Schwan’s, was now going by the name of – hold on to you hats, folks: “Yelloh.”

Lileks guesses that some public relations genius got the ear of the Schwan's family and convinced them it would be a good idea to polish up the company image. But YELLOH? MY guess is that they were trying to get on board with the new naming criteria which rejects anything with a group connection. So the good Germanic family name with roots in southern Minnesota gives way to a name like YELLOH that means … what? “Give us a holler because our delivery trucks are yellow and so is our New York-style ice cream?”

Probably not. Lileks points out that appropriate names for businesses should tell the consumer what the businesses are all about, like U.S. Steel, or General Electric. Maybe the new norm is to name it something that doesn’t tell us what the business is all about.

The name changing trend started years ago, when another PR genius convinced a bunch of oil moguls to change Cities Service gas stations to Citgo. Cities Service was my uncle Gene's green and white filling station in Whitehall, and the change to Citgo — with the blood red and dark blue coloration — broke his farm boy heart.

I also well remember when the new president of Wartburg College in Waverley, Iowa (the BW’s alma mater) changed the centuryplus old Lutheran college, named after a castle made famous by Martin Luther, to something vaguely comical — The Wartburg. When alums and other donors complained, the new president explained that Iowa colleges beginning with letter “W” (as in Waldorf, William Penn and Westmar) were so numerous that prospective students would get lost in a forest of W’s. So he added the article “The” to the moniker, because so few college names began with a “T.”

At that year's Homecoming, we stood next to a well-heeled alum during the parade, which was led by that very same name changer, riding in a Model-T ford, followed by a parade of riding horses from Waverly's famous auction barn. The well-heeled alum's comment: “First parade I ever saw with an ass coming before a horse.” The new president was gone within the year and “The” was dropped from Wartburg's name forever. Go Knights!

Family connections also did not seem to matter to the folks who named Minneapolis’ flagship department store “Marshall Fields,” a name known only to those like my wife who hailed from the Chicago area. Maybe the namers were visionaries who foresaw the era when Mark Dayton was not the most popular mayor. Or maybe they foresaw the era when anything named after anybody would be a target for demolition.

But let’s face it: Some names just don’t work. When I taught at Augustana-Rock Island, I was confused by a sister college in the synod called Suomi, a small college on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. What's a “Suomi” I wondered. “It's the name of an old Finnish Synod,” replied a theologian in the know. Today's name for “Suomi?” It's called “Finlandia,” and it’s still going strong. Some Yooper whose name probably ended in “i” had his thinking cap on.

The new rage on the academic front has seen a flurry of name changes. Augsburg College, where I taught for years, has suddenly become Augsburg University. That might have made some sense years ago when Augsburg had its own seminary, sort of a second college. There's also Concordia University in St. Paul, and little schools all over the planet have lengthened their moniker to include the fancier, apparently more glamorous “university.”

Here's a question for those administrations racing to become universities. If it's so cool to be a university, why have preeminent Minnesota's St. Olaf, Macalester and Carleton not joined the pack and got into the glamor race? Or Harvard, which still calls itself a college?

I'll betcha St. Olaf wouldn't change its name to Olehellow. Or Manitou Heights Megauniversity. Nor would Macalester become Machellow, or Carleton become Carlhellow.

All this reminds me of 50 years ago when all these colleges suffering from enrollment declines and financial woes were talking of mergers. President Charles Bailey of Hamline, one of the coolest prexies in my memory, jumped at the chance and wrote in the Star Tribune “I suggest Hamline merge with Macalester. After all we're in the same town, and a merger would mean a catchy new title: HAMSTER!”

Another cool president, Augsburg’s witty Oscar Anderson, always referred to their neighboring rival St. Olaf as “a College built on a bluff and operated on the same principle.”

To my knowledge, no one at Macalester laughed, nor did St. Olaf revoke Anderson’s alumni status.