A few years ago, a press release announced the opening of a new section of the "Bill Morris Memorial Parkway." Only problem was -- if you can consider it a problem -- Morris wasn't dead.
Nothing against him, but it was an understandable mistake. Generally, when public facilities are named after individuals, they are deceased (or else have gobs of money). But after years of not having an official policy on the matter, a County Commission ad hoc committee last week crafted a resolution where in "the rarest" of cases, living individuals can have county buildings, bridges, roads, and other facilities named after them.
The move came after representatives of Juvenile Court and Commissioner Joyce Avery rallied to name the court building after longtime judge Kenneth Turner.
But Turner is still alive, and some commissioners felt that it would be better, and potentially less embarassing, to have a policy wherein facilities could only be named after those who are deceased. Call it the Martha Stewart Living syndrome. Or the Rickey Peete/Edmund Ford caveat.
"Unless you're dead, you can still do something wrong," said Commissioner Deidre Malone. Council members Peete and Ford were arrested last week on federal bribery charges, along with perennial candidate Joe Cooper. "With everything going on when it comes to elected officials and high-profile individuals, we need to wait until they're deceased. ... Just to make sure that there is no impropriety after we name a building or a bridge after them and then we're embarrassed."
During policy discussions, commissioners toyed with the idea of having an age requirement or a minimum of 30 years of service to county government but eventually discarded those ideas for a more flexible plan at commissioners' discretion.
"We don't enter into this lightly. It's our preference that things be named after people who are deceased," said Mike Carpenter, the commissioner who proposed the "living" amendment. "If we lock ourselves in, down the road, there may be someone worthy of this kind of honor who wouldn't be eligible."
Of course, wait long enough and everyone will be eligible. But, if you're really interested in honoring someone, it seems like sooner is better than later.
"Everybody I know has a tremendous amount of respect for Judge Turner," said Avery. "He is not well. He is up in years. Sometimes it's important to let people know you really care about them before they die."
I guess the larger question is: What is a fitting tribute to people who serve the community? Should it be enough just to serve? Or do people expect something in return?
This seems particularly timely this week, with Memphis politics rocked once again with allegations of corruption and bribery, and those "serving" the community are looking at serving time instead.
Other than naming names, however, the commission only has a few honors it can bestow upon deserving citizens. I mean, it's not as if they get to knight anybody. The best thing most people can hope for is an official proclamation. And there's a big difference between a few minutes of commissioners telling you how great you are and getting to drive down a street that bears your name. I would assume.
"For people who have worked for the betterment of Shelby County or Memphis, this is just a way to say thank you, not just from a small group but from all of us," said Avery.
I hate to say this, but I think potential embarrassment in this case is a two-way street. If a road or community center or whatever isn't maintained, is it really a fitting tribute? Look at Elvis Presley, Danny Thomas, or E.H. Crump boulevards. Would you want a row of pawnshops, auto-body places, and car washes named after you?
Commissioner Sidney Chism argued against the "living" condition of the proposal, saying commissioners' discretion would come down to politics as usual. "If we're going to pick and choose, I'd like to draft a resolution naming this building after Walter Bailey," he said of the county building.
I don't know. I'm hoping that, for politics as usual, we're at the end of the road.