SHIRLEY – This is a story about how Mr. Harold J. Smith, age 91, found out that his first name, the one he’s used and been called by all his life, is different than he thought it was.
When he went to the state Registry of Motor Vehicles RMV to renew his driver’s license this summer, Smith ran into a road block.
But first some background. Smith has dealt with adversity and overcome obstacles in his life, and although that statement could apply to almost anyone his age, his personal time line is still remarkable.
When he was 75 years old, Smith earned his high school diploma, a milestone he’d missed in his youth, having quit school in the 6th-grade so he could work and help support his family.
“I never went to high school” he said in a recent interview.
More than a half-century later, Smith went back to school. Adding to his late-in-life accomplishment, an essay he wrote, titled “My Goal” won an award. He read it at his graduation ceremony. It reads, in part, “I always regretted” not finishing school.
His only regret at graduation was that his late wife, Rita was not there to share the occasion with him. Both lifelong town residents, they were married for over 50 years and had five children. Smith now has 35 grandchildren and still lives in the house he built on Chapel Street in the 1950s.
Smith said he worked “where ever they would hire me,” from paper mills in Groton to a series of in-town jobs, sometimes more than one at a time, including reserve police officer. “I was the bar room cop at Rice’s Cafe,” he said.
He was the custodian at the Lura A. White Elementary School for many years and, years later, his daughter worked there as a teacher. He also worked at the former Nashoba Hospital in Ayer, now Nashoba Valley Medical Center.
After retiring from his various day jobs, Mr. Smith launched a new career as a volunteer.
On his own time and with his own vehicle, a 2004 Ford Taurus that he still drives today, Smith drove other area seniors who were less mobile than he was to places they needed to go, such as medical appointments, mostly out of town. Some became friends and he still visits one of his former passengers, a man who was blind. They meet up at the Pepperell Senior Center, he said.
Working under the auspices of Montachusett Home Health Care, in Worcester, he served on its board for 12 years. CEO Lori Richardson once calculated that he’d driven over 9000 miles during his tenure and ferried more than 200 passengers, Smith said.
He also served on the Council on Aging for three years and in the early 2000s, founded an early version of the Shirley Senior Center, Smith said.
Now established in a former kindergarten building on Parker Road that the School Department turned over to the town several years ago and which Smith helped a cadre of volunteers to renovate, the senior group that Smith headed up used to gather at the elementary school, he said.
Along with a roomful of family photos in his living room, he has a trio of official citations on the wall, recognizing his years of volunteer service, including two he recently received from The Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Massachusetts Senate.
State Rep. Jennifer Benson and Sen. James Eldridge came to his home to deliver the citations in person and showed up at a selectmen’s meeting where he was to be recognized.
Three of his five grown children came as well and were disappointed when the town had no formal proclamation for him, Smith said. Chairman Bryan Sawyer said thank you on behalf of the town.
Smith said he’d hoped to keep up his volunteer work for another few years but later decided to retire, in part because of the name snafu.
When he went to renew his license, Smith applied for a “Real ID,” which is a recommended option now and will be mandatory for domestic flights or to enter certain federal buildings as of Oct. 1, 2020.
One of the documents he needed to get a new license, proof of citizenship, was his birth certificate.
So Smith went to get his birth certificate. As a lifelong town resident, he didn’t have far to go.
But that’s where the glitch comes in.
The name on his current driver’s license was Harold Smith, same as all the other licenses, documents and paperwork his name has appeared on since he can remember.
But it’s Joseph Smith on his birth certificate.
“I thought my middle name was Joseph,” Smith said. “I’ve always been Harold.”
Nobody ever told him otherwise, he said.
But there it was on his birth certificate, which shows his first name as Joseph.
He wonders now if it stems back to Catholic elementary school, where “every boy’s first name was Joseph and every girl was Mary.,” he said. No matter how the mix-up happened, he was told he’d have to fix it, legally. “They told me I’d have to hire a lawyer,” he said.
Maybe not. After being informed of Smith’s dilemma, Benson assigned one of her aides to look into the issue, which he did. It’s cleared up now, Smith said.
The name on his driver’s license matches the one on his birth certificate: Joseph H. Smith.
Now, he wonders how the switch might affect other official documents, such as his motor vehicle registration, bank accounts, property deed. The list could get longer. When he asked Benson’s aid, he said he thought it would be okay, but he couldn’t guarantee it, Smith said.
For now, though, he’s good to go, drivers license in hand. But despite his “Real ID” designation, as far as Mr. Smith is concerned, his “real” name is still Harold, always has been, always will be.