Cleveland Evans: For those who fear ‘Gregory’ may disappear, stay watchful - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, September 3, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:29 am
Cleveland Evans: For those who fear ‘Gregory’ may disappear, stay watchful

Peck, Maddux, Kinnear, Louganis, or Brady?

Whom do you think of first when you hear “Gregory”?

Gregory is the English form of the Greek Gregorios, “watchful, vigilant, awake.” It was popular with early Christians because of several Gospel passages in which Jesus tells His followers to remain watchful and alert.

Several early saints were named Gregory. Gregory the Wonderworker (213-270) was a bishop noted for his gentleness and success at converting pagans. Legend claims he dried up a swamp and moved a mountain by his spiritual power.

St. Gregory the Illuminator (240-332) was an Armenian prince. His family fled political troubles to settle in Asia Minor. There, young Gregory became a Christian. As an adult he returned to Armenia and converted King Tiridates, the first monarch to make Christianity the official state religion. Krikor, the Armenian form of Gregory, was for centuries a common Armenian name.

The most famous St. Gregory is Pope Gregory I, known as “Gregory the Great.” A wealthy man who founded seven monasteries and then became a monk himself, Gregory was elected pope in 590. Credited with keeping the church strong despite barbarian invasions of Italy, he wrote several theology and history books widely read in medieval Europe. Gregorian chants are named after him.

Gregory promoted the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, and so was especially revered in England. After his death in 604 he was proclaimed a saint. Thirty-two medieval English churches were named after him. His feast day, Sept. 3, was celebrated throughout England.

English historian George Redmonds says Gregory was the 34th-most-common name for boys around 1380. Gregory’s medieval popularity is also shown by how common Gregory is as a surname. In 2010, more than 88,000 Americans had the last name Gregory, ranking it 312th. Gregg, Gregson and Greer families also had ancestors named Gregory.

Gregory was also common in medieval Scotland, accounting for all the Scots named MacGregor. Somewhat surprisingly, Gregory was rare in medieval Ireland; there don’t seem to be any Irish surnames based on it.

In 1538, when nationwide baptismal records began in Eng­land, Gregory still ranked 35th. However, Gregory the Great’s fame led many later popes to adopt the name. One of those popes, Gregory XIII, famous for calendar reforms, also sponsored plots to overthrow Protestant Queen Elizabeth I during his 1572-1585 papacy.

It’s no surprise the 1580s were the first decade in centuries that Gregory wasn’t among the top 50 names for English boys. Though many non-biblical saint names fell in use after the Reformation, Gregory’s decline was among the steepest. By the time English colonists settled North America in the 17th century, Gregory was rare as a baby name.

In the 1850 U.S. Census, only 416 males had Gregory as a first name — and 23 percent were born in Ireland or Germany.

In 1880, when Social Security’s yearly baby name lists are started, Gregory ranked 967th. In six individual years between 1882 and 1891, it didn’t even make the top thousand.

As immigration increased the percentage of Catholics, Gregory slowly rose. In 1888, New Yorkers Samuel Peck and his Irish Catholic wife, Catherine, named their son Gregory.

Gregory moved to San Diego, where his wife, Bernice, bore a son named Eldred Gregory in 1916. Eldred dropped his first name when he became an actor.

Gregory Peck was the lead in “Days of Glory,” his first film, in 1944. He was nominated for Oscars for “The Keys of the Kingdom” in 1944, “The Yearling” in 1946, “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1947 and “Twelve O’Clock High” in 1949.

Though Gregory had been slowly rising since 1916, Peck’s career skyrocketed it. Newborn Gregorys went up more than 90 percent in both 1945 and 1946, and another 46 percent in 1947. Gregory ranked 152nd in 1944 and 33rd in 1947.

After 1947, Gregory rose at a slower pace until ranking 21st in both 1962 and 1963. More than 21,000 were born each of those years. Two of Peck’s most popular films — 1961’s “The Guns of Navarone” and his Oscar winner, 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — contributed to the peak.

Many baby boomer and Gen X Gregorys, partly inspired by Peck’s fame, are now famous themselves. The late dancer Gregory Hines was born in 1946. Rock star Gregg Allman, officially a Gregory despite his extra “g,” was born in 1947.

Actors Gregory Harrison, Greg Evigan, Greg Kinnear and Greg Vaughan were born respectively in 1950, 1953, 1963, and 1973.

Thriller writer Greg Iles was born in 1960. Gregory Maguire (1954) is author of the revisionist Oz novel “Wicked,” which inspired the popular musical.

Athletic Gregorys include Olympic diver Greg Louganis (1960) and Greg Maddux (1966), the first pitcher to win baseball’s Cy Young Award four years in a row. One of the youngest famous Gregs, former University of Nebraska at Omaha football player Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein (born in 1987), made the longest rookie field goal in NFL history last fall for the St. Louis Rams.

For those born during the second half of the baby boom (1956-1964), the most famous Greg is fictional Greg Brady (played by Barry Williams), oldest son on TV’s “The Brady Bunch,” originally broadcast 1969-1974. The Brady characters represent the perfect family to many.

Since its 1963 peak, the name Gregory has steadily fallen. The 1,217 born in 2012 ranked it 287th, lowest since 1934. A name with this long and distinguished a history, though, is unlikely to ever disappear.

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