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Spirited Storyteller Says His Ship Has Come In

Bill Dempsey makes a living telling it like it was on the high seas in the 1800s. He also dresses the part, sometimes as a ship’s captain, first mate, second mate and ship’s doctor.

“When I go to a school, I call myself a visiting mate,” said the one-time Philadelphia coffeehouse entertainment director who later became a disenchanted public schools music teacher.

The Glassboro (N.J.) State College graduate says that while public school teachers have never been in it for the money, in years past they had a secure job.

“That has changed. Teachers are at risk and music teachers in particular are the first to go in budget-crunch time.”

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Dempsey, 41, decided California had a better climate and opportunity.

After working and living at a youth hostel in Huntington Beach for a year, Dempsey landed a job at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point Harbor and went back to the classroom, this time as a costumed singing storyteller.

His work as a make-believe crewman includes an evening of song, stories and sea lore for families from 5 to 9 p.m. at the institute the first Saturday of the month through December.

“I enjoy working with kids,” said Dempsey, a folk singer for 20 years. “They are refreshing, never boring, very straightforward and don’t have a lot of inhibitions.”

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Despite those qualities, said the sometime free-lance musician who plays the trombone, guitar, harmonica, kazoo and banjo, “kids have become part of a real passive society. They sit down and turn on the tube and say ‘Entertain me.’ ”

Harking to years past in the roles he plays in his living history programs, Dempsey points out that people had to entertain themselves since telephones, radio and television had yet to be invented.

He notes that despite modern times, “kids really enjoy making up new words and stories for the songs they sing. They have wonderful imaginations.”

Dempsey said one of his roles is to open children’s eyes to the possibilities around them.

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“If they are interested, kids will follow it,” he said. “I’m successful in what I’m doing if the kids go home and have a long talk with their parents, sing them a song and tell them a story.”

In a way, Dempsey has decided to live the way seafarers lived in the days he describes in his living history tales.

“I’m slowing myself down,” he said. “I’m making a conscious effort to simplify my life.”

So much, in fact, that “you couldn’t pay me all the money in the world to go around with a beeper and a car phone,” says Dempsey, whose favorite recreation is surfing during the winter.

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“It is very, very peaceful out there with nothing but some sea gulls and possibly a couple of other lunatics,” he said. “Surfing is my hobby.”

At this point in his life, the single father says he’s “generally doing what I want. I watched my father work as a baker for 40 years in a job he didn’t like, and I’m not going to make that mistake.”

He thinks most of society looks to money for happiness.

“What do I need to be happy? Having a job I enjoy, and I have that.”

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