When I was a child, I didn’t think much about my middle name. But other people did. “How come you’re called Acton?” they would ask. “Are you named after Lord Acton?” “No, I’m named after my father,” I would reply. After a while I, too, began to wonder how the name found its way into the family. It turns out it has to do with Patriots’ Day.
Most New England children learn early the significance of April 19, the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the shot heard ‘round the world. When you are surrounded by monuments, parades, prose, and a day off from school, it is hard to ignore Patriots’ Day.
The town of Acton was very much involved in the events of April 19,1775. The Acton Minutemen, under the command of Capt. Isaac Davis, were said to be the best drilled in the colony. When the call to arms came, they marched up Punkatasset Hill and joined the Concord Minutemen, who were on their way to the old North Bridge.
When the British opened fire, Captain Davis and one of his privates, Abner Hosmer, fell mortally wounded. A few hours later another Acton patriot, James Hayward, died of his wounds. The only men to give their lives in that momentous skirmish at the bridge were from Acton.
Over the years, though, Acton’s role in the events of the day had been submerged in history, which was seen by some as the result of the jealous maneuvering of Middlesex towns to get the recognition for what took place on Patriots’ Day. To correct the record and to give its own celebration some status, the town of Acton invited my grandfather, John K Fitzgerald, “Honey Fitz,” as he would be known in later years, to deliver its Patriots’ Day address on April 19, 1895.
Honey Fitz was a good choice. Not only was he emerging as a figure to be reckoned with in the rough-and-tumble politics of Boston, but he was no stranger to the town. When his father first came to this country, he worked on an Acton farm for eight dollars a month. As a boy John F. spent his summers in Acton, and it was there that he met, courted, and eventually married Josephine Hannon. But most important, he was a good stump speaker, someone who could stir the crowd and remind people of their town’s rightful place in history. As he left for Acton that morning, his wife, Josie, was experiencing some early signs of labor, and the birth of their second child seemed imminent.
The town fathers were happy with their choice. John F. delivered. Speaking through a large megaphone, he reminded the crowd that men, not places, count. The important thing, he said, was not the monument but the soul of the man whose bones rest under it. It lay with the sons and daughters and grandchildren of Acton to see that the words of Captain Davis--“I haven’t a man who is afraid to go”—were not only kept sacred but placed like living fires of truth in the hearts of everyone in the civilized world. The crowd roared its approval. And as John F. stood enjoying the applause, a messenger whispered in his ear that his wife had had a baby —a boy, his firstborn son.
Being a natural politician, John F. announced to the Patriots’ Day crowd that in honor of the day, in honor of Acton’s place in history, and in honor of his wife as a native, he would name his child after the town. Thus my father became Thomas Acton Fitzgerald, and in time I became T. Acton, Jr.
So each Patriots’ Day is an extraspecial time for me. It reminds me of my country’s past and of my family; and it is a time I say a small prayer of thanksgiving that Grandpa wasn’t speaking in Marblehead that day.