Just call me ‘Myrtle’

Published 12:01 am Saturday, February 1, 2014

Like most Southerners, I answer to more than one name.

There’s “Michele,” my given name. There’s “Honey,” which is what Honey also calls me, unless we’re disagreeing on something. Then I become, “Michele Gerlach, I’m going to call your daddy.”

If Daddy were indeed called, he would ask, “Sweet Pea, what is it?”

Those old enough who remember a popular Beatles song by the same name often greet me with, “Michelle, Ma belle.” When I was a painfully shy 3-year-old, and my Uncle Don sang the greeting out to me, I blushed and hid my face. Now I just smile.

Not many give “Mrs. Gerlach” a try, since Honey’s surname is difficult to figure out.

Inevitably, those to whom I am closest shorten my given name to “ ‘Chele.” And I’m not so naive as to think there aren’t many less flattering monikers used behind my back.

But until yesterday, I’d almost forgotten one of the funniest.


It was the name Bill Benton assigned to me, and in his mind, it stuck.

When we first came to Andalusia eight years ago, Earl Johnson called and invited me to join him for lunch at the airport. Eager to learn about the community, I accepted and we set a time. I had no idea it would be a more-than-four-hour lunch.

Because when we got to the airport, Bill Benton put on a show worthy of a multi-million-dollar industrial prospect. He was proud of SARA and it showed. In the conference room, he had Jed Blackwell and Misty Jones show me drawings of proposed projects, brief me on grant funding, and generally, give me the history of how he took a tiny little country airstrip and turned it into a state-of-the-art, modern facility that became an economic engine for this community. SARA was his baby and he was one proud papa.

My head was spinning by the time the lunch ended, but it was a class well worth the time it took.

After that day, when Mr. Bill had something he wanted to get out to the media, he’d look at Jed or Misty and say, “Get Myrtle on the phone.”

At first, they were puzzled.

“You know, the little girl from the newspaper,” he said, and God love him for calling me a “little girl.”

They laughed when they told me that story, and every other time that he told them to “call Myrtle.”

It got to be a thing at the airport and with people who worked around him. Tucson Roberts picked up the nickname, as did Edwin Page. Then Edwin’s frequent lunch date, Mark Murphy, joined the Myrtle club.

It was as funny to me as it was to them. I sometimes have trouble recalling names myself, so I was sympathetic to Mr. Bill’s mental block on “Michele.”

Mr. Bill retired in 2008, leaving this community a showcase he made from a grassy airstrip. Gradually, “his people” stopped with the nicknames, and I forgot, too.

The warrior and war hero left us this week after long and valiant battles to overcome health issues. As I looked at pictures of him last night, the story came back in a flash.

I answer to lots of names. But I am as honored to have been known as “Myrtle” by a man whose vision has meant so much to this community as I am to be “Honey” or “ ‘Chele,” or “Aunt ‘Chele.”

Lucky for me, “Myrtle” made the cut.