Wayne Dempsey

Exit Strategy: Wayne Wright Dempsey Sr., 1948-2014

For almost 66 years Wayne Dempsey provided a practical illustration of how to live well. In the last three of those years, he taught us how to die well, too. 

Dr. Wayne Dempsey
Dr. Wayne Dempsey

The remarkable life ended May 2, 2014, where it began, in the northwest Georgia community at the confluence of three rivers surrounded by seven hills just like the eponymous Rome of Romulus and Remus. It was a Wayne Dempsey-scripted finish – details seen to as well in advance as possible, all risks managed and bills paid on time, instructions left for a gathering not of mourners but of celebrants.

Dempsey and his wife, Marsha, moved back to the city where they had grown up together from infancy to the home they had previously occupied. His illness forced retirement from his position as Brenau’s No. 2 executive. They sold the “big house” and moved to temporary digs in Gainesville until the renovations could be completed on their home in Rome. Dempsey talked about that openly, as he did about all aspects of the damnable disease that took him from us. He wanted Marsha to have a nice, comfortable place to live after he was gone. He did not want her to be stuck dealing with contractors or anything of that sort. Dempsey, the bean-counting CFO and operations specialist, was as detail-oriented as they come, and before his scheduled departure, he wanted to address all the details that he could.

He took care of where he would reside, too. Before he died, there was already a headstone installed on the family plot facing into the hilly vista surrounding Georgia’s Rome. “Typical Dempsey,” chortles friend, successor and protégé David Barnett. “Leave it to Wayne to pick the best view in Rome.”

Wayne DempseyDempsey was remarkably straightforward about his situation when he returned to work following that devastating prognosis. The maximum six months doctors gave him would get him past Christmas – his primary motivation for fighting, for enduring the chemotherapy and other treatments that sometimes seemed to make him sicker: he wanted one more Christmas with his family. If that meant some pretty extreme discomfort and debilitation, then he would endure it. Sometime later, as Dempsey prepared to celebrate the third Christmas following his diagnosis, he was still openly reflective. “I figure for the last two years, I’ve been on borrowed time,” he said. “I’m OK with that. I’ll borrow as much as they’ll let me.”

In 2005 Dempsey came to Brenau with the university’s new president, Ed Schrader. He had worked with Schrader previously at Shorter University, where trustees and faculty thought so much of him that they gave him an honorary degree. Dempsey clearly liked the title “Dr. Dempsey” and never discouraged its use. Although he was a science teacher early in his career, his forte became institutional management, and Schrader credits Dempsey for putting Brenau’s financial house in order. His death came almost in perfect alignment with the end of the academic year when the university’s cash flow slows dramatically and he avoided at all costs borrowing money for day-to-day operations. Dempsey during that time watched purchase requests and spending like a miser. That helped him garner another “honorary” title: “Dr. No.”

Wayne DempseyAs Schrader pointed out, Dempsey “knew how to say no to financial requests from faculty and staff and have them leave his office smiling and feeling valued.”

“He was one in a million, a life-long good guy, a dedicated educator who cherished his students and a loving father and husband who adored and nurtured his family,” said Schrader. “I worked with Wayne for almost 15 years as a colleague and friend. Being with Wayne was always fun and rewarding, whether we were working or playing. I especially appreciated Wayne’s sense of humor because he laughed at my jokes, no matter how bad they were.”

Schrader recalled that, upon learning of Dempsey’s death, a mutual friend remarked that he had “an empty space in his heart.”

“So do I,” said Schrader, “but I’ve got a mind full of  wonderful and cherished memories to help fill it.”

Dempsey could have easily written that part of the script, too.

Read more about the life and death of Wayne Dempsey and see a photo gallery at http://www.brenau.edu/news/dempsey-obituary/.

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