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Names from the Past

Like almost everyone else with a website, I get the occasional query: "Are you related to me?"; and to some degree, like every other human being on the face of the earth according to the latest genetic theories I am, of course: but if you are a Thayer, it's not our name that makes us relatives.

I was born William Peter Schutz, in Bern, Switzerland, on November 23, 1949. My father Joseph Willard Schutz (b. offshore Seattle, WA, May 8, 1912; d. Orlando, FL, Dec. 1984) was a junior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department at the US Embassy; my mother was Colette-Liliane-Isabelle-Marguerite née Boucherle (b. Tunis, Tunisia, October 9, 1919; d. Orlando, FL, Feb. 1992), whom he met at Versailles on May 1, 1945, when she was a chemical engineer with the Free French Army poised to occupy Berlin. Seated at a dinner near this well-fed American who was leaving some of his steak, my mother, who hadn't seen beef in several years, reached over, speared it with her fork, and ate it: they were married in Berlin on February 20‑22, 1947 — four times over two days before the US and French occupation authorities, the German civil authority, and the church respectively. My mother resigned her commission as a captain in the French army, and became "a dependent": I heard this many, many times throughout my childhood.

On my father's side, his father was purportedly a German engineer working on the construction of railroads in South America, where he met my grandmother, Winniefred Foote (b. Faribault, MN, June 21, 1893; d. Washington, DC 1974), who at the time, under the stage name Désirée Lubovska — she had not a drop of either French nor Russian blood, despite what can now be read in various places online, nor did she ever dance with Pavlova — was the première danseuse and artistic director of her own dance troupe, the National Ballet Theatre. My grandfather died of either illness or gunshot wounds — accounts differ — in a revolution in Ecuador before my father was born. 1912 was indeed a watershed year in that country, just as there is a Victoria Station in The Importance of Being Ernest, but that's as far as I can verify my paternal provenance: I once asked my grandmother how many husbands she'd had, to which she replied, "Lots." Her family, at any rate, was English and Irish, and first came to the United States from Canada in the early 19c; my oldest living memory is of Grandma Kelly, my father's great-grandmother who raised him in Mound, Minnesota (now a mere suburb of Minneapolis) while his mother was off dancing and his grandmother, Blanche Foote (?1874‑1960), was with her as the dance company's financial whiz.

My mother's father was Pierre Boucherle (b. Tunis, April 11, 1895; d. Six‑Fours-les‑Plages, Var, 1988), a fairly well-known painter and founder of the School of Tunis; my grandmother Cécile, née Emonts (d. 1943), was a high-school teacher, daughter of an archaeologist sent to Tunisia by the French government to excavate the remains of Carthage. For a sample of my grandfather's work, see two paintings of his reproduced as postage stamps (1 • 2) issued by Tunisia in 2001. The Boucherle family came from around Montélimar: the earliest forebears of whom I have any record are my great-grandparents Léopold-Joseph-Simon Boucherle, a horticulturist born there in 1862, and his wife Louise Barnier. The legend on this side of the family, as with almost every family in oh‑so‑staunchly republican France, is that we were descended from nobility, and my mother once waved her hand at a ruined keep in the Rhône valley as we rushed southwards by. There is not the slightest indication that any of it is true: on the contrary, the Austrian-sounding names of my great-grandfather, the exceptional rarity of Boucherle as a French surname contrasted with the not uncommon German name Bucherl, suggest his own parents might have been Austrian Jewish refugees; although a websearch also finds the family name in Vaud canton, Switzerland.

In the late winter or early spring of 1971, I changed my name to William Pierre Thayer. The immediate reason was the disagreeable sound and associations, in almost every language I spoke, of my former last name, and its curiously refractory spelling, with English-speakers almost to a man insisting on inserting an l in Schutz.

Casting around for a name — which I wanted disyllabic, trochaic, easy to spell and pronounce in English and French, and without the possibility of unfortunate puns; reasonably but not overly distinctive, and reflecting my French heritage — I adopted the name, which I thought at the time to be of Norman French origin (it isn't), of the Father of the US Military Academy at West Point, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sylvanus Thayer. He was a man of honor and an intelligent, methodical man who found in the French educational system the model for the Academy he built: virtues that I admired and still do, all the more so that 160 years later I became a product of the French school system and wholeheartedly agree with him on that score as well.

My own brush with West Point was tangential, if that, on the Academy's side; less so, of course, on mine. As a young man, interested in the policy of space exploration if not in actual astronauting, I wanted to get into the U. S. Air Force Academy, and the only way I found to manage it — living as I did overseas on a farm in southern France and thus having no congressperson to nominate me — was to enlist in the Army, obtain an Army appointment to West Point, spend a year at the USMA Preparatory School then at Fort Belvoir, VA (the school would finally find its home at West Point itself in 2011 after many years of migrations), and transfer to USAFA: all of which I did, winding up as an Air Force cadet, Class of 1973, 37th Squadron,º only to find that I was temperamentally unsuited to any kind of military career. I quit after 5 months. Neither academics nor physical endurance brought me down, but very poor handling of stress and an irrefrangible lack of strackness, both of which bedevil me still. People who know me will confirm it: I can spend more time shining a shoe, or cleaning a kitchen, to get a bad result than anyone I know.

I've often wondered what my life would have been had I taken the USMA appointment instead of that to USAFA, since West Point had started to become part of me, and the extra motivation just might have made a Soldier out of me rather than an almost-pilot. Still, I suspect I would have been no more suited to the one than the other (Plut. de Tranq. 472C): after a few years running a magazine and a grass-roots organization promoting international non-governmental space exploration — popular in the 2020's but not in the 1970's — what I like to think of as the first half of my life then saw me working over twenty years as a simultaneous interpreter of French, specializing in mechanical engineering and the options and futures markets. I was very good at it; the second half is dribbling away now, writ for the most part on the Web.

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Page updated: 6 Mar 21