One week after the bill was laid on his desk, acting Gov. Paul Cellucci yesterday signed into law the change that has been awaited by the Island’s smallest town since almost a year ago. The governor’s signature made it official.

The town of Gay Head is no more; long live the town of Aquinnah.

“This was actually one of the least controversial things I’ve ever seen around here,” said Rep. Eric T. Turkington yesterday afternoon from his Beacon Hill office, commenting on the petition he and state Sen. Henri S. Rauschenbach sponsored after a vote by the residents of Gay Head last May.

“At one point when the clerk of the House was preparing to read the bill, he did ask me how to pronounce the names. That was about all I really had to do with it.”

Residents of Gay Head first voted on the name change in 1991, rejecting it by 89 votes to 36. But the mood in town had changed by May 15, 1997, when a slender majority of 79 votes to 76 approved the change in the spring town elections. The new name is the Wampanoag word for “land under the hill;” the old name was an Englishman’s reference to the gaily colored clay cliffs that are the visual trademark of the town.

Once the feelings of town voters were clear, there was never any real controversy in the state legislature, only the slow process of the bureaucracy. Last July, the legislature’s joint committee on local affairs heard testimony in favor of the name change, and promptly voted its approval by a margin of 6 to 1. Resident June Manning, one of those who testified, said after that meeting: “They were very enthralled with the history lesson I gave them. They were very impressed and responsive. It was a very good feeling when we left.”

Walter E. Delaney, chairman of the Aquinnah board of selectmen, offered this response: “It is the people’s choice; this is a democracy. I would have rather seen the tribal lands called Aquinnah, and the rest of the town Gay Head. We could have had Aquinnah and Gay Head. But I think people will still call it Gay Head.”

Gay Head joins Oak Bluffs as the second Island town to change its name. The residents of Cottage City, incorporated in 1880, voted overwhelmingly for a name change to Oak Bluffs at a special town meeting in the fall of 1906. The new name became official the next year.

Some residents won’t have to throw away stationery or business cards, because they are already using the name of Aquinnah. Mrs. Manning told the Gazette last spring that she was already set for the change. “It’s on my business cards. It’s on my checks. My son has it on his checks. I get my mail at Aquinnah, 02535.”

That’s no problem for the U.S. Postal Service, incidentally. It has listed Aquinnah under the zip code for Chilmark for years.