The Three Howards

L to R: Howard Witt, Howard Witt & Howard Witt (Photo for the Tribune by Anthony Robert La Penna / June 20, 2007)

As best I can tell, there currently are about 59 Americans, out of a population of more than 300 million, whose parents decided, out of the infinite universe of possible name combinations, to call us Howard Witt.

Sadly, 40 others of us are dead, according to the Social Security Death Index, which tracks Americans who have died since 1962. How many other Howard Witts once lived and died before that is, I'm afraid, a question lost to the ages.It's a little daunting, being possessed of a rare name. Not as rare, of course, as, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Oprah Winfrey. But still, if you've met a Howard Witt in your life, you tend to remember him. Unlike all those "James Smiths" or "John Johnsons" strewn across the country, we can't get lost in the anonymity of names shared by hundreds of thousands of others.

Truth be told, it's not always fun having this name. "Howard" is pretty nerdy in the first place, and "Witt" lends itself to all kinds of juvenile taunts: "Hey, what's your middle name? Half?! Ha ha!"

Howard Witt of Middletown, N.Y., tells of children rhyming his name with a certain four-letter word for excrement when he was growing up -- a searing experience many of us can recall.

Despite such handicaps, I can tell you that some of us have done very well over the years. Before he retired to a luxurious Streeterville condo, Howard Witt in Chicago was the chairman and CEO of Littelfuse Inc., a successful electronics company. Howard Witt in Maryland owns a 39-foot yacht.

Sadly, others of us have run into financial troubles: The IRS slapped liens against two of us for unpaid taxes, and five of us have filed for bankruptcy at some point in our lives.

Nevertheless, we've got some nice rides -- three of us have owned Cadillacs over the years and one has got a Mercedes -- and collectively we've registered six SUVs and three mini-vans. But two of us, I'm embarrassed to say, appear to be tooling around in some rust buckets -- an '86 LeBaron and an '83 New Yorker. I hope we've been changing the oil regularly.

Professionally, Howard Witt in West Virginia is a licensed master plumber and electrician, while another Howard Witt in Chicago -- not to be confused with Howard Witt the CEO -- used to be a cosmetologist, although we let our license lapse back in the '90s. Another Howard Witt in Chicago (not the CEO and not the former hairdresser) is a famous character actor who has starred at the Goodman Theater and on Broadway.

Then there's Howard Witt the journalist -- that would be me -- who used to live in Chicago as well, meaning that at one time Chicago had the most Howard Witts -- four -- of any city on Earth.

Yet for all those successes, we've also had some brushes with the law, mostly for speeding and disregarding stop signs. But one of us did draw a year of probation for shoplifting, while another of us was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Eye-opening experience

Howard Witts come in all shapes and sizes. Most of us are Christian, and some of us are Catholic; a few are Jewish. There are white Howard Witts and black Howard Witts. We are registered as Democrats, Republicans and Independents. We are spread across 26 states.

Six Howard Witts liked our name so much that we named our sons Howard Witt Jr. In Virginia, the entire population of four Howard Witts is made up of two pairs of Howard Witt Junior and Senior.

So how do I know all of this about myself and my alter-egos? The Internet. Just a few hours spent searching dozens of publicly available electronic databases -- such as Nexis.com, the PACER database of federal court lawsuits and state motor vehicle registration records -- revealed enough personal information about each Howard Witt that, if I wanted to go out and steal my own identity, I probably could.

Of course, that would be a little like dying and being reincarnated as yourself, which would be kind of a bummer. But you get the idea -- if Howard Witt is not safe from Internet snoopers, then who among us is?

My cyber-sleuthing experience was eye-opening, and a bit chilling. For nearly every Howard Witt, I found home addresses, phone numbers, birthdates and political affiliations. I found out how much we weigh, how tall we are, when we were born and the color of our skin. I found out the kinds of cars we drive and the value of the houses we own. I found out how many times we've been arrested and sued.

Things got even eerier when I started interviewing some of the other Howard Witts.

Howard Witt in Middletown, for example, drives the same make and model car as I do -- a Nissan Quest minivan. His favorite color, like mine, is blue. We both were born in 1960.

Or how about this: Howard Witt the retired Chicago CEO, Howard Witt the Broadway actor and I all have a connection to Vincent Van Gogh's famous "Sunflower" painting.

Howard Witt the CEO has a reproduction hanging in the foyer of his condo. Howard Witt the actor gave a copy of the painting to his sister as a gift. My parents had a version hanging in our front hallway when I was growing up.

This last fact I know because I arranged a Howard Witt meetup when I was visiting Chicago not long ago, attended by me, myself and I. Or, if you're trying to keep the box score, the attendees were the journalist, the businessman and the actor. (I had hoped to include the cosmetologist, but I couldn't track him down.)

Just to keep things interesting, we all agreed to wear dark blazers, khaki pants and red neckties. We started out at Howard Witt the CEO's building, where the doorman did a triple take. Then we repaired to a nearby Chinese restaurant. It turns out that we all like Chinese food a lot.

Meeting on Broadway

Actually, I had met Howard Witt the actor in 1999, when he was starring on Broadway alongside Brian Dennehy in "Death of a Salesman," in the role of Charley, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. After the play, I chased behind him as he exited the stage door.

"Oh, so you're Howard Witt!" he said after I caught up with him and introduced myself. "I've been getting bills with your name on them for years!"

Howard Witt the actor also got bills from the Room & Board furniture store in downtown Chicago for Howard Witt the CEO, which is how the two of them first met.

At least their accounts never got crossed with mine. Yes, that's right -- I bought furniture from Room & Board as well.

(Cue "Twilight Zone" theme music here.)