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Sharing the Name of  Celebrity  Makes Life More Challenging - 2003-08-16

August 16 marks the 26th anniversary of the death of rock and roll legend Elvis Presley. Such anniversaries often bring extra attention for another Elvis Presley, this one an African-American from Houston, Texas, father of five, youth sports coach, and data center services manager.

"It's hard to tell if it's a crank call or if it's something serious but I've gotten calls from local radio stations and once even supposedly a radio station from Australia," says Mr. Presley. "I have an unlisted number, but I guess if they want you badly enough they'll find you."

Elvis Presley is one of some 50 people, all sharing the name of a celebrity from U.S. history, featured in a new book called Great Americans: Famous Names, Real People. The author is K.K. Ottesen, who visited every state to meet and photograph those people.

Imagine a trip around the United States where you stop off to interview Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt and Muhammad Ali - not the celebrated woman pilot, the influential President's wife or the champion boxer. We're talking instead about Amelia Earhart, the television news reporter from Florida, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Apache Indian from Colorado, and Muhammad Ali, the Minnesota college student who dreams of a career in neuroscience.

"Muhammed Ali speaks with a Minnesota accent, but he's originally from Pakistan and came over when he was six years old with his family," says K.K. Ottesen. "He's really bright, very interested in science, but also very articulate, into politics and public affairs. So you get these wonderful mixes that you could not possibly predict, but it's all part of this complex melting pot."

K.K. Ottesen had that experience again and again as she traveled around the United States to compile her book Great Americans. She wanted to create a portrait of the nation by telling the story of people from every state, a random group sharing a common link.

"It could have been birthdays, Social Security numbers, anything. And then I happened upon the idea of the names, and I thought if one of the questions is what is it we share as Americans, it's our cultural icons," she explains. "And then I also liked the idea of using the names that shaped the country to examine what it is today."

Her journey took her from Hawaii, where she talked with Jerry Garcia, who shares the name of the famous rock musician, to Maine, home of Davey Crockett, who bears the name of a legendary frontiersman. K.K. Ottesen also visited ranches, shrimp boats, even a Vermont prison where she talked with a man named John Adams, just like America's second President. She asked everyone the same set of questions, ranging from how they spent their days, to what it meant to them to be an American.

"The first thing people said was what you'd expect: freedom, the right to free speech," she points out. "And several folks said, 'We have a lot of resources, and that brings a lot of responsibility, and we should be careful.' Joan Sitting Bull was talking about how she didn't want to waste water or electricity. She had all these things available to her, but she wanted to make sure she didn't take more than her share in the world, basically."

Joan Sitting Bull is a white woman who manages a restaurant in New Mexico. She got her name by marrying the great grandson of the Native American Chief Sitting Bull. Some people in the book were named after famous people on purpose; for others it happened by coincidence. Elvis Presley was born just before the other Elvis Presley became a superstar. He was named after his father's best friend, and says he sometimes gets tired of the extra attention, not to mention the jokes.

"I've heard them all - Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog, shake your pelvis. I guess the only point that annoys me now is when I'm introduced, they have to put an emphasis on my name. It's just a name," he says.

Some people told K.K. Ottesen they felt a special bond with those whose names they shared. That was the case with retired Iowa politician Marilyn Monroe when she talked about Marilyn Monroe, the glamorous Hollywood sex symbol.

"She wasn't the bombshell and didn't aspire to be. But she sympathized with Marilyn Monroe and how maybe she wasn't treated fairly all the time, and people didn't realize how smart she was because she was beautiful," says K.K. Ottesen. "And Al Capone, whom I spoke with is actually related to the gangster, Al Capone. He was highlighting the good things he'd done. He said he [Al Capone] fed a lot of Chicago in the breadlines when there was no welfare."

K.K. Ottesen took photographs aimed at capturing the everyday reality of each person's life, sometimes in dramatic contrast to those whose names they shared.

Take Scarlett O'Hara, a motorcycle rider from Swoyersville, Pennsylvania. Her name evokes images of the flirtatious heroine from the epic novel, Gone With the Wind.

"I called her on the phone, and [she's got a] tobacco cured voice, 'Hi, K.K., it's Scarlett.' She calls herself the Belle of Swoyersville, but nothing like the southern belle that you would expect. Rides a Harley, listens to heavy metal, is a sales representative for Phillip Morris, smokes like a fiend," says K.K. Ottesen. "The picture I have of her is sitting very smugly, slyly on her Harley, leaning to the side with a cigarette in her hands, just relaxed. She's very cool."

It was those unexpected encounters, says K.K. Ottesen, that turned out to be one of the biggest rewards of her travels.

"You just cannot predict who's going to open the door," she notes. "I think that's the best part of this country, because you don't know how they're going to look, and even once you find out how they look, their background is going to surprise you, what they like to do. These portraits visually and in their words show you the breadth of life. That was fantastic to see."

But for all the diversity in the book, Elvis Presley of Houston, Texas, says that after reading other stories, he realizes he has something in common with Al Capone, Eleanor Roosevelt and others who bear famous names. They all have something to live down or live up to, an extra burden that makes life a little more challenging.