What’s in a name? A story about my unique last name, my family & my values

What’s in a Name? A Story about My Unique Last Name, My Family & My Values

By Colin Van Ostern
November 22, 2015


In addition to laying out clear policy priorities and a vision for the future, part of running for Governor is about introducing who I am as a person  —  my values and what motivates me.

So, here’s one story with some insight into that: the story of my unique last name. It’s a story of how families can grow, and shrink; and how names can grow and shrink with them. Not only does it answer some of the more unusual questions I get sometimes on the campaign trail (no, I’m not Dutch), but hopefully it also gives you some insight into who I am and whom I fight for.

 I was born to Irish-American parents, and I was given a great Irish name: Kevin Colin O’Loughlin. (Since birth, my parents always called me by my middle name, Colin, mainly to prevent confusion with my dad Kevin).


My parents, both of whom I love very much, divorced when I was very young. In my early years, I was raised by my single mom. We moved a lot. Most years, my first day of school in the fall wouldn’t just be a new grade, but a new school entirely.

By the end of elementary school, both my parents had remarried, and our home included my mom, step-dad, and two sets of kids. Our life was filled with “step-sisters” and “half-brothers,” but we mainly just called each other “brother” and “sister.”

When I was about 8 years old, my mom asked me which of my parents’ last names I wanted to use. Eager to include everyone  —  my mom, dad, and step-dad  —  I chose a mouthful: Van Ostern O’Loughlin. My parents signed off with a judge to make it official. I quickly realized that it never fit on any forms, from standardized tests to college applications, so I began using just Colin Van Ostern.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my step-dad  —  who had struggled with mental illness for years  —  moved out of our house. A few months later, he took his own life. Our family changed again: this time, it got smaller. But my name stuck.

Colin Van Ostern is the name I’ve used my entire adult life — on every business card and resume, from the first part-time job I had in high school to the day my name first appeared on a ballot.

When I moved to New Hampshire in my early 20s for a job, it was the 18th house I’d ever moved into  —  but the first where I really felt home. I fell in love with our state’s unique combination of independence and small, caring communities. I fell in love with our mountains and lakes. I put down roots, volunteered in my community, and had amazing opportunities at world-class institutions  —  from business school at Dartmouth to exciting jobs with increasing responsibility at forward-looking employers like Stonyfield and Southern New Hampshire University.


I also fell in love quite literally, with my wife Kristyn McLeod. Like me, Kristyn grew up in a middle-class family, but unlike me, her family had generations-deep roots in Concord and in New Hampshire’s north country. She was born in Littleton and grew up in Portsmouth. Where I was a nomad until I found New Hampshire, Kristyn is a full-fledged daughter of the state. And yet, when we got married, she decided she wanted our family  —  and the kids we hoped for  —  to all share one name. I think it’s a testament to the strength that comes from diversity, progress, and the American melting pot that, together, we chose Van Ostern as our family name.

Before I first ran for public office in 2012, I checked to see if my full last name (still, technically, Van Ostern O’Loughlin) would physically fit on the ballot  —  it was a mouthful! Sure enough, like on all those standardized test forms and college applications, the whole thing wouldn’t fit. Either I could either cut my last name off mid-word where the form ran out of space, or I’d have to legally shorten it. I opted to legally shorten it, and finally made official the name I’d been using since childhood: Colin Van Ostern.

As we hoped, Kristyn and I had two great kids, whose future now means everything to us. Our two sons are being raised in a strong family with a mom, a dad, a dog, and a shared last name. Their family is no better, or stronger, or more loving, than the one I was raised in  —  or than the families of their friends who are raised by one mom, or two moms, or those who are single children or belong to big, blended families. Their name is no more or less legitimate than those whose go back many generations. And their lives  —  like all kids’ lives  —  should be just as full of opportunity, regardless of family or history.

Much of my work in public service has been about the policies we need to keep our state moving forward: how we can build an even stronger economy where everyone has the opportunity to succeed, not just those at the top.

But the fundamental lesson I learned through a family that grew, and shrunk — and a name that grew and shrunk with it — and by watching my mom study to finish college while my sister and I hung out with her at the laundromat on long Saturday afternoons  —  that lesson is important too. Here it is:

Life usually isn’t quite as neat and picture-perfect as it looks on TV or what we post on social media. That fact is not something to resign yourself to; it’s actually a source of strength, diversity, resilience, and a sign of progress.

The details of my story may be unique, but the broad strokes  —  of families that grow and change, and names that grow and change along with them  —  are more common than not. Growth, diversity, and imperfection are traits to celebrate and be proud of. And we’re better off when we have leaders who understand that.

Former Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern has announced his plans to run for Secretary of State of New Hampshire in December of 2018. This post was first written in October of 2015 and updated with more recent photos and to reflect Colin’s current work in summer of 2018.

Learn more or get involved at www.freeandfairnh.com.

View the original post on Medium here.