Remembering Dr. Michael Dempsey ’75

By Thomas Beatty '68
Former CM Principal Mr. Beatty reflects on his memories of  Dr. Dempsey, who passed away on January 3, 2020.
As the warm, carefree summer breezes of August gave way to the halting uncertainties of life beyond Labor Day in September 1974, both Mike Dempsey and I were about to enter worlds that would open up and define our lives. Mike was about to enter his senior year at Catholic Memorial with all the life-changing decisions that needed to be made facing him while I would begin a teaching career at CM that I was as excited about as I was apprehensive. During that year, I didn’t teach seniors and Mike wasn’t much of a sports enthusiast so our paths rarely intersected. After graduation, Mike headed off to Washington, D.C. to begin his college career at Catholic University and I looked forward to reconnecting with those warm, carefree summer breezes.
The next time I would see Mike Dempsey was a decade later in September 1985 when much had changed for both of us. I was a “veteran” teacher at CM and Mike would be on his way to realizing the designation of Dr. Dempsey. We were about to begin 28 years as colleagues together at CM. During that time, we both became Department Chairs, Mike for two different departments, Theology and Social Studies, and me for Mathematics. During department meetings, Mike would always have the most pertinent thing to say at the most opportune time. And anyone who has ever sat in a lecture by Dr. Dempsey has experienced this persuasive and instructive manner and knows exactly what I am talking about.
After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy at Catholic University and a Master of Arts in History at Harvard, he ultimately earned his PhD in Intellectual History from Providence College. And there was no one who looked more at home in his doctoral robes than Dr. Dempsey. He was the talk of the town whenever there was the occasion to don those white robes. And the students cherished that look.
He was so proud of the book that he wrote. I remember he gave me a copy before one summer vacation and when we returned to school the next year, he asked me if I had a chance to read it yet. I told him I was about halfway through. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what I really meant was that I was halfway through reading the title, Separation of Church and State in the Works of Félicité Lamennais and Orestes Brownson: French and American Theories Compared.
Two of Mike’s great loves were his house in Harwich on Cape Cod and his golden retrievers, Seamus and Murphy. He was devoted to both. I would ask him from time to time towards the end of the week at CM if he was going to the Cape for the weekend and his rather indignant response was always, “Are you serious?” He would be first in line every year to get the proper beach sticker that would allow him to four-wheel on the beaches of the outer Cape.
I went with him once with my dog to the Cape Cod National Seashore. Before you can enter the beach, you were instructed to take the proper amount of air out of your tires to assure the avoidance of getting stuck in the sand dunes. Mike had this operation down to a science. And on the beach as we watched our goldens romp through the dunes as only goldens can, Mike never looked happier.
As exacting and fastidious as Mike was in his academic life, he was really no different outside the classroom. Like anywhere, the procedure for requesting a personal day off at CM requires proper notice to the administration. Once a year, Mike would take this to a bit of an extreme. The first day back from summer vacation, Mike would file all the proper documents with the administration for a personal day off, which is laudatory except the day he always requested was the Tuesday after Memorial Day. He certainly understood the traffic patterns on the Cape and even in September he wasn’t taking any chances.
To not mention how Fridays and Mike Dempsey were intertwined at CM would be remiss. Any employee was well within his right to confuse the days of the week amidst the helter-and-skelter of daily school turmoil. But you were always guaranteed to be absolutely certain when it was Friday because, without exception, all you had to do was find Mike Dempsey and see if he had his pink shirt and pink-flowered tie on. If he did, it was guaranteed to be Friday.
My former CM classmate, Walter Kelly ‘68, was Mike’s attorney for the sale of his house in West Roxbury when he retired and moved down the Cape full time in 2013. As a former English teacher and master of words, Mike truly appreciated the conversation that Walter and I had down the Cape shortly after he sold his house. I was coming out of George’s Fish Market in Harwich as Walter was on his way in with his wife, Caroline. The sale of his house took longer than Mike had anticipated, and he was extremely happy that the transaction had finally closed. When I said to Walter, “That’s great news about Mike Dempsey’s passing.” Walter replied something like, “Yes, it took longer than we thought it would but I’m glad it’s over.” And at that moment, I looked at Caroline who had a look of shock on her face. She said, “I hadn’t heard, why are you two so happy that Mike Dempsey has passed away?” Mike enjoyed that story a lot.
I talked to a number of former faculty and students at Mike’s wake and funeral and the words brilliant, kind, professional, and witty were among those that were repeated over and over. But the one story I heard from a 1987 grad put it all in perspective. Steve McIntyre’87 told me that next to his family, Mike was the person who was most responsible for his success in life. He said he was always demanding the utmost in achievement and truly treasured the value of academics. He said Mike made him who he is today and was eager to relay this one story. Steve said that in his senior year he was in Mike’s Philosophy class and in the National Honor Society for which Mike was the moderator. So, Mike was very familiar with Steve’s academics and character.
Steve applied to Yale, his first choice, but by this time he had grown tired of the whole college application process and admittedly didn’t put the necessary effort into the essay. He then put the same kind of effort into his Cornell application and, as he was handing it in to the main office to have it processed, Mike happened to walk into the office and noticed what Steve was doing. Mike asked Steve if he could look it over before he handed it in. Steve was now embarrassed because he knew it wasn’t up to Mike’s standards. When Mike finished looking at it, he told Steve that he wanted to talk to him. When they went to Mike’s classroom, he told Steve of his disappointment and said he hoped he didn’t do the same thing with the Yale application. When Steve told him he had, Mike told him that it was unacceptable. He had Steve call down to Yale to see if he could submit a new application. They said that was not possible. So, what did Mike do? Not one to take “No” gently for an answer, he got on a train to New Haven the next day and met with the Admissions Department and was also told it was not possible to withdraw and submit another application. But with Mike’s persistence and explanation of Steve’s abilities, they agreed to add an addendum to his first application.
The story ends with Steve being accepted to Yale University as an undergraduate and attending George Washington University for medical school. He is presently living with his wife and children in Florida where he is a cardiac medicine specialist.
Like so many great teachers who do things for students above and beyond their job description and outside the glare of the limelight, Steve McIntyre believes that this example is a reflection of Mike Dempsey’s life.
I think we’d all agree.