FORT WAYNE – The plight of Harry Baals has gone global.
Since The Journal Gazette first reported on Tuesday that the city would not be naming its new office building after the longtime mayor, media from Los Angeles to London haven’t passed up the chance to revel in the nearly endless arsenal of jokes.
“Fort Wayne officials refuse to slap Harry Baals on public building,” screamed The Register of London. “Killjoys scratch handle off erection.”
Comedian Jimmy Kimmel tweeted, “join the fight – support Harry Baals!” while linking to MSNBC’s version of the story about Fort Wayne’s future home for government.
The international attention has prompted a skyrocketing of online support at www.feedbackfortwayne.org for the Baals moniker.
Votes for naming the new city-county government building at 200 E. Berry St. the Harry Baals Government Center jumped from 882 Monday afternoon to nearly 10,000 Wednesday night despite city officials saying it would not be used as the name.
The second-place choice had fewer than 500 votes.
Jim Baals, whose grandfather was the mayor’s nephew, said he doesn’t see why city leaders are so concerned about the name.
“It’s a funny name and they’ve made fun of me my entire life for it,” he said. “From what I can gather, he did a lot of good with the city. I don’t see a problem honoring the man.”
Residents shouldn’t expect the fame to last, however, according to Assem Nasr, assistant professor of communications at IPFW. With technology today, stories are passed and abandoned quickly, he said. The story might have gotten even more attention had it included a video because many younger people don’t want to have to read news, Nasr said.
“It’s just like a fad. You’ll get it by e-mail, you read it, you giggle, you move on,” he said. “It’s not something you play over and over again.”
Baals – pronounced “balls” by the then-mayor but “bales” by some descendents – became the Republican nominee for mayor in 1934 and was elected for three successive terms. He returned to politics in 1951 by winning a fourth term but died in office in May 1954. His accomplishments include elevating the railroads in town and negotiating the contract with the Army to establish Baer Field as an air base.
He already is commemorated with a plaque on Calhoun Street under a railroad overpass and with H.W. Baals Drive through Johnny Appleseed Park.
There remains some disagreement in the family about the difference in pronunciation. Jim Baals, a city firefighter, said it was his grandmother who changed the pronunciation of the family name because she didn’t want her kids growing up with the name “balls.”
Gene Towns, whose grandfather was the late mayor’s brother, said everyone in the family besides the mayor pronounced it “bales.” He said several German immigrants simply couldn’t say “bales” and that Harry Baals was too kind to correct them, so the name stuck.
Towns questioned why the city wouldn’t consider naming it after his ancestor. He wondered whether community leaders would shy away from ever recognizing County Commissioner Nelson Peters or former library official Eugene Johnson just because someone might have a quick laugh at their names.
Robert Baals, grandson of the late mayor, said he would be thrilled if Fort Wayne would honor his grandfather.
“I’d love to see it,” he said. “I think Fort Wayne tended to enjoy his stint as mayor.”
Living in Yorktown, Va., Robert Baals said he was unaware of the uproar over his grandfather. He has always pronounced his name “bales.”
Frank Suarez, spokesman for Mayor Tom Henry, said the mayor’s office has been swamped with media calls since Tuesday.
He said the website is a success even if the city won’t use the top vote-earner – something Henry never promised to do in the first place.
More than 26,000 votes have been cast on the site, including more than 8,000 on Wednesday. He said the city can’t determine where the votes are coming from, but it is safe to assume many weren’t being logged by city residents.
Voting will continue on the site through Friday, after which the mayor will discuss finalists with city and community leaders, Suarez said
Many Harry Baals supporters on Wednesday posted comments on the city’s website offering a compromise to shorten the building’s name to H.W. Baals Center.
Jim Baals said the former mayor would likely get a kick out of using his name for the building, noting he had to have a sense of humor.
Example No. 1 was his first wife’s name: Minnie.