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McClatchy Newspapers, Published July 04 2012

Show your patriotism: Name your child after a Founding Father

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Among many ways to show your patriotism: Fly a flag, join the Army, sing along with the national anthem at a game.

Or name your child after a Founding Father.

George Washington Jr., 75, of Sacramento, Calif., isn't sure why his father and grandfather chose that last route. But he's made the most of it.

“It starts conversations,” he said. “People look at me and say, ‘Ah, George Washington.’ Everybody has an amusing comment about that.’”

Washington is one of a dwindling few Californians named for famous patriots.

About 150 registered voters in California are named George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock or Thomas Jefferson, down about 10 percent from 2002, as more die each year than are replaced.

Most Californians named after Founding Fathers are older than 55; the naming trend peaked in the 1940s and 1950s, voter registration records show. John Hancock is the most popular of these names. But George Washington is a close second.

Many Washington namesakes, like George Washington Jr., are African Americans who moved from the South to California during the last century.

Washington was born in 1937 in Yorktown, Va. Yes, that Yorktown: the place where British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. George Washington in 1781, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.

His dad, also named George Washington, chose not to go by his more famous moniker; instead, people addressed him by his middle name, Emmett.

Initially, that's what George Washington Jr. did, too — he was known as Emmett Jr.

When he joined the U.S. Air Force at the age of 19, he started using his first name.

“I didn't have a choice,” he said, recalling the Army's decision on what to call him. “That's what my birth certificate said.”

Over the next 20 years, Washington, a communications and navigation worker, would see more of America and the world than his famous namesake. At various times, he was posted in Vietnam, Texas, the Azores and Illinois.

During a stint in Colorado Springs, Colo., he met his wife, Tina, also a soldier. She knew about him before he knew about her.

“The news got around that there were some new guys,” she said. “And that one of them was named George Washington.”

Washington eventually got a posting at now-defunct Mather Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova, Calif. He retired after that and began working as a contractor at nearby McClellan Air Force base.

Everyone around here knows him as George; back home, he's still Emmett.

“One of his friends from when he was growing up once said, ‘Why are you going around changing your name?’ ” Tina Washington said.

This Fourth of July, Washington, who lives in the La Riviera neighborhood, will celebrate in a way that General Washington, a beer lover, might have liked. Asked of his plans, George Washington Jr. said, “barbecue, play some games, have a few.”