Thumasathit Hall: A History, of Sorts

I grew up in a small town in northwest Iowa named Hull, population 1,500 in the 1970s. My parents were the town doctors, and they operated the Hull Medical Clinic.

For after-hours medical emergencies, the clinic’s telephone line also rang on our phones at home, but with a higher pitch. Every phone in our house had a little twist knob to toggle back and forth between the home line and the clinic line.

During weekends or evenings, when my brother and I were in the house and my parents were outside gardening or golfing or running or whatever, when the clinic line rang, the responsibility of twisting the phone knob and picking up the clinic phone fell upon us. The conversations invariably went like this:

“Hi, can I speak with Dr…Dr…Thum…Thum…”

“Please hold.”

It was rude to interrupt, but listening to patients attempt to pronounce our last name was tiring at best. Only once did a patient entertain with his mispronunciation:

“Hi, can I speak with Dr. Thermostat?”

Those were my earliest tortured long last name memories.

When I grew older, I came to learn the derivation of my last name.

My father’s last name was actually Sae-Tung. My paternal grandfather was Chinese and could only read and write Chinese, and he immigrated to Thailand, where my father was born.

When my father immigrated to the U.S., he was asked what the English spelling of his last name was. My father decided that he wanted a more Thai sounding last name.

For the first part of the last name, he looked to his religion, Buddhism. Dharma can either mean “cosmic law and order” or the teachings of the Buddha. Thai Buddhist chants are actually written in Pali, which is very similar to Sanskrit. And “Dharma” in Pali is actually written/pronounced as “Dhamma” or “Thamma.” So he took “Thamma” and added a “u” instead of an “a” just to be unique and ended up with “Thuma.”

But all Thai people need long names. “Thuma” could not be a last name unto itself, he reasoned. That could only be the first half of the name.

For the second half of the name, he took “Sae-Tung” and changed it to “Sathit” — I’m not entirely clear why how or why he chose this, but it was probably more Thai sounding, because the Thai word for high school is a “sa-atit.”

So there it was — “Thuma” and “sathit,” joined together for the sole purposes of immigrating to the US. The last name “Thumasathit” was born. It’s a completely made up last name. There is no one else in the world with the last name Thumasathit, other than my immediate family.

Apparently, I have a distant cousin who lives nearby, in Milpitas, but I’ve never met him. When he immigrated, he decided to take the Thumasathit last name as well. But he wanted something a unique, a bit longer, all for himself. His solution:


It’s not just that “Thumasathit” is a long last name. It’s also those 2 silent consonants. Those are the real killers. Because of those silent consonants, no one pronounces Thumasathit correctly on the first try. No one.

The second silent “h” leads to a somewhat unfortunate last syllable. For example, I once received a birthday card from a very dear friend. The front of the envelope said (in good humor):

“To: Thi Thumasathit. Thumasaboob. Thumasahonker. Thumasamelon. Thumasatata. Thumasaheadlight. Thumasajug. Thumasahooter. Thumasaknocker. Thumasa…”

The list went on.

But mispronunciation is just half the fun. Spelling out the last name for any over any and every the phone transaction has always been tedious. “T” is repeatedly misheard as “P”, “S” is misheard as “F”, “M” is misheard as “N”, and before I know it, I’ve just spent 5 minutes on the phone spelling and re-spelling my last name to someone. I’ve taken to spelling my last name out exactly like my father did when he would order things from infomercials: “T like Tom. H like Harry. U like Uncle. M like Mary. A like Apple. S like Sam. A like Apple. T like Tom. H like Harry. I like Indigo. T like Tom.” And it still gets misspelled.

So I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with my last name. My last name is just totally and completely inconvenient.

When my ex asked if she could change the last names of our kids to her last name — ostensibly to make it easier for her to travel internationally with the kids — my response was not, Cuss off! In fact, it was the opposite. There were, from my own experience, many tangible benefits to having a shorter, more pronounceable, more easily spelled last name. I thought about it long and hard, and I agreed to the name change. (Later, this would be held against me — He didn’t even care if his kids had his last name! — but that’s a different story altogether.)

When my parents retired and moved to Dallas, they became very involved in the Buddhist Center of Dallas, or Wat Dallas. The temple was ostensibly a single family home converted into a place of worship.

Wat Dallas is a great example of a group of immigrants who really got their act together as a community. Like the Thai temple in Berkeley, they started serving Thai food on Sundays, and became known as the best place to have Thai food in all of Dallas. Over the course of 15 years, the community saved up over $2.5 million and decided to build a real Thai Buddhist temple.

Plans were drawn up. The initial plan was to have the temple on stilts of sorts, with an open-air common area underneath the temple, like this temple in Phuket:

Wat Surin on Surin Beach in Phuket

Upon reviewing the plans, my father said, it’s a real shame, we’re building a brand new temple, we should enclose the area underneath and make it a real usable space — we can use it for banquets and dancing and such.

We’ve already looked into it, was the response. It’s too expensive. We don’t have the money to enclose the ground floor.

I guess my father must have felt really strongly about this. He thought about it briefly and replied with no uncertainty in his voice, Don’t worry about the cost. My wife and I will take care of it.

My dad had a rich history of being impulsive (see infomercial purchases referred to above). It’s not obvious if he actually knew the full cost of enclosing the ground floor.

The new Wat Dallas was completed — with an enclosed ground floor — in May of 2012. It is a beautiful temple, both inside and out. Much of the artwork and craftsmanship was commissioned directly from Thailand.

Wat Dallas

To celebrate the dedication of the temple, my father became a Buddhist monk for a week. He had suffered from liver cancer a few years before, and he was in remission. He had always wanted to become a monk, at least temporarily, and it’s as if he knew his time was limited.

Almost exactly two months after the dedication of Wat Dallas and his week-long journey as a monk, my father passed away.

His memorial service was held in the the ground floor room that he insisted be enclosed, now with plush red carpeting, a stage, bathrooms/changing rooms, and even a kitchen on the side for food preparation.

Thumasathit Hall.

During his memorial service, a member of the congregation spoke about my father and his love and dedication for the Wat Dallas community, and how he had championed to build the room. Even though he spoke in Thai and my Thai is pretty darn bad, the gist of what he said was obvious:

In honor of Dr. Chote and everything he has done for our community, I hereby move that this room be officially named Thumasathit Hall.

Fast-forward five years.

It took some time to get proper buy-in from all the powers that be. And then it took some time to get proper signage created. But this past weekend, Thumasathit Hall was officially dedicated. Monks prayed. The Abbott spoke. And then my mother pulled on a string to unveil the new signage.

At least they got the spelling right (I think).

They say that you don’t really die until the last living person utters your name for the last time. As long as Wat Dallas lives, Thumasathit Hall will live on as well. And so will the memory of my father.

I never thought I would live to see our family name — yes, the same name I have a love-hate relationship with — chiseled out of marble with gold inlay permanently mounted onto a building.

It’s quite a legacy he leaves behind. I can only hope to live up to it.