• Andrew Pettit

What's in a Name?

Saturday, September 19,1936, was a beautiful, sunny day in New York City, with temperatures in the low 70’s. Alfred Adolf Oerter paced determinedly in the hospital waiting room, while his wife, Mary, was in labor with their first child.


Originally named Astoria Hospital, the Tudor building on Crescent Street, between 30th Avenue and 30th Road, had opened in 1896, and was a state-of-the-art facility for its time. However, two years later, it was forced to close due to the lack of city funding and in the ensuing years, doctors made unsuccessful attempts to revive the hospital.


Then, in 1925, Marie Daly bought the property and opened it as a maternity hospital and a place where patients could recuperate from long illnesses. Her husband, Dr. John F. Daly, served as medical director, and its incorporation was approved by NY State under the name, Daly’s Astoria Sanatorium.

Daly's Astoria Sanatorium, Astoria, Queens (circa 1936)
Daly's Astoria Sanatorium, Astoria, Queens (circa 1936)

The father-to-be was the oldest of six children (3 boys, 2 girls) born to Adolf Otto Oerter and Anna Margarete, nee Dillman. The Oerters were a very industrious family and were led with a firm hand by patriarch, Adolf. Starting in construction, the family business expanded into one of the largest plumbing contracting firms in the city as A. Oerter & Sons.


As the oldest son in a German-American family, Alfred was in charge of running the business, particularly as his father got closer to retirement age. Even though Alfred would often be approached with higher-paying job opportunities from other companies, he would never even consider them. Family loyalty was paramount, and it was ingrained in him to remain in the family business and always support his father.


“It’s a boy, Poppa Al,” the humorous, baby-deliverer, Dr. Bruce Jones, announced. “Nine pounds plus. Congratulations!”


The new father was thrilled. He had been a first-born son as well, so it was special that this child followed in his footsteps. Now that he was Al, Sr., the baby’s name had already been decided in his mind: Alfred Adolf Oerter, Jr.


The new mother, Mary Louise Oerter, nee Strup, was the youngest of six children (3 girls, 2 boys, although one died in infancy) of native Czechoslovakian parents, Frank and Mary Strupova. Their surname was shortened for them to Strup after arriving in the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1893, with their oldest and only child at the time, Frank Jr., in tow.


Mary Oerter, was born in 1904, just before her father died of tuberculosis the following year at age 34. Living on the lower east side of Manhattan, Mary’s mother now had to raise five children on her own in a new country, without speaking the native language. She was extremely hard working and took in laundry, cleaning and performed other domestic chores to make ends meet. Her children followed in her determined path.


Before the birth of her son, Mary Oerter worked as a professional in marketing, distribution and publicity for Paramount Pictures. She would schedule films, talent and premiers across the country and had an amazing command of the local markets and how to best tailor campaigns and advertising for each of them. Today, it’s called social media marketing, but without the mouse-clicks.


When Alfred Oerter was finally allowed to visit his wife and new baby boy, he gushed with pride and got his wife to confirm that their son would be named Alfred Adolf Oerter, Jr. Mary gave him tacit approval and didn’t let on that there were some things to consider first. While Alfred was a dominant-type, Mary was gentle and introspective.


What bothered her was that it was 1936, and the name “Adolf” had taken on a new meaning in world affairs. Hitler had risen to power in Germany and been named Chancellor, remilitarizing the western German lands near the Rhine and the eastern border of France. This went against the Treaty of Versailles and, more threatening, Germany had become a one-party fascist state under a totalitarian dictatorship.


The Berlin Summer Olympics had just concluded in August, which served as another propaganda-fest for Hitler, despite the outstanding performances by U.S. athletes. Mary had observed that her husband, his brothers and her father-in-law had already been subject to some verbal abuse on occasion, based upon their German heritage. It taught her to be very protective of her new son, as it related to people’s prejudices in a volatile world.

Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

On the day Mary Oerter and her baby, Al, were due to go home, Alfred arrived with the form for the birth certificate filled out with the name “Alfred Adolph Oerter, Jr.” and asked for her signature. She told her husband to leave it with her and she would take care of it.


For Mary and Alfred Oerter, that next year with the growing baby was spent taking long stroller-walks over the Queensborough Bridge and enjoying wonderful, sun-filled summer days at the beach.

The new Queensboro Bridge (1908)
The new Queensboro Bridge (1908)

It was said by family members that “Al was his mother’s son,” because he had her quiet, calm, kind demeanor. When Al was 16, Mary Oerter passed away after a long struggle with colon cancer. In many ways, losing her ultimately led him to find solace in the sport of discus throwing, where the only person he needed to rely on was himself.

Young Al Oerter Enjoying a Summer Outing
Young Al Oerter Enjoying a Summer Outing

In the mid-1970’s, just as Al Oerter was about to commence his comeback effort towards attempting a 5th Olympic gold medal, he was visiting with his father, who had just turned 70. For some reason, Al, Sr. started to talk about the family tree and said that he had read it was becoming less common these days to name a son “junior” after their father.


Al, Sr. mentioned how proud he was to share his name with Al, Jr., and to be part of three generations of Oerters with Adolf in their names.


That’s when Al, Jr. broke it to his father; that “Adolf” was not part of his name. “Yes it is,” Alfred implored, “Adolf is your middle name. Alfred Adolf Oerter, Jr.”


Al showed him the birth certificate. There was no “Adolf.” Alfred then knew he had been outdone by his wife, Mary, 40 years before. He smiled.


On that coming-home day back in 1936, Mary Oerter signed the birth certificate under her son’s name: “Alfred Adolf Oerter, Jr.” Then, she crossed out the middle name “Adolf.” The certificate was registered with the City of New York as Alfred Oerter, Jr., Certificate No. 7613.


Around the time of his 12th birthday, Al’s mother showed him his original birth certificate and explained why she had removed his middle name. She told him that his father didn’t know. Al chuckled at the time and later remembered thinking, ”She out-foxed him!”


The tale of the changed birth certificate became part of Oerter lore. For years afterwards, the family had many good laughs about Al’s birth on that September day and how his mother had snuck one by her husband.


Even Dr. Jones brought levity to memory of the event. He wrote up the 9/28/1936 maternity bill on an Rx pad made out to “Poppa Al.” Under “Bad News to date” was his fee of $50 for delivering the future Olympian. Below that he added, “Special rates on triplets or quintuplets.”

$50 Maternity Bill from Dr. Jones made out to "Poppa Al"
$50 Maternity Bill from Dr. Jones made out to "Poppa Al"

In 1949, Daly’s Astoria Sanatorium was sold and became Astoria General Hospital. There would be further expansion and several new owners over the years. The original building on Crescent Street is now part of a $175 million complex known as Mount Sinai Queens.


Recently, Kimberly Powell, a professional genealogist and past President of the Association of Professional Genealogists, wrote that “Junior is used to distinguish a son with the same name as his father. The names must be exactly the same, including the middle name.”


While Al Oerter’s correct legal name may have surprised his father and broken the rules governing the naming convention around the designation of “junior,” it proved that, beginning with his first day of life, he was the perfectly blended product of a loving and devoted mother and father.


Of his mother, Al wrote: “She never saw me win an Olympic Championship, go through college, get married, and have two children. She never saw anything of what my life was to be, but if it were not for her and her nurturing through all of those sixteen years while I was with her, I would not have accomplished anything.”


Mary Oerter with her son Al Oerter (circa 1938)
Mother & Son (1938)

After Alfred Adolf Oerter, Sr., passed away in 1991, Al, Jr. reflected, “My father had retired to Florida and we bought a place nearby. I would be there for six months out of the year and would stop by his home every morning for coffee. For six years, through those coffees, I got to understand him and he got to understand me.


“Through his stories of growing up in old New York, running the family business, losing my mother, his wife, and still having to raise two teenage children, I got to know everything about him.


“He told me about what he was going through at a particular moment in his life and through the years. I miss him dearly, and I will see him down the road somewhere, somehow, and I look forward to that.”


Alfred Adolf Oerter with Alfred Oerter, Jr.
Alfred Adolf Oerter with Alfred Oerter, Jr.

© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


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