George Dempsey should thank the stars that his parents did not give him some goofy name like “Susquehanna” or “Mississippi” or the poor lad might still be swimming.
“I can remember my mother and father telling me more than once, ‘Your name is George and the lake’s name is George, so you should have no trouble swimming the length of it, too,’ ” Dempsey told me the other day. “Hey, I was only 7 or 8 years old at the time — how did I know they were just joking around?”
This was 1958, and a 25-year-old mother of three, Diane Struble, had just caused a small sensation, the first ever to swim the 32-mile length of frigid, choppy Lake George, from Ticonderoga to the Million Dollar Beach. Even George Dempsey concedes that aside from that flimsy first-name thing, there was no reason to believe that this kid from North Troy could follow in Struble’s flutter kicks.
Still, fast forward nine years and sure ’nuff, on Aug. 17 and 18 of 1967, Dempsey, just 17, would emerge from the water at Lake George Village, the third of only four swimmers ever to accomplish the feat. And what an improbable feat it was!
Dempsey only had been swimming for four years, not at some hoity-toity swim club with precocious little snots all pointing toward the Olympics but at the Boys Club in Lansingburgh where he grew up. The Boys Club!
“George was one of the best swimmers on our team,” said Neil Kelleher, former chairman of the Rensselaer County Legislature and a teammate. “But look, this was just the Boys Club, and we would go to AAU meets and get our heads handed to us by the other teams.”
Dempsey was going into his senior year at Catholic Central High School, which had no pool and no swim team. He recalls only one neighbor ever having a pool — one of those swell, above-ground jobs — so in the summers George would swim among all the little screaming monsters at the local city facility.
“But I had it in my head that I could do it,” Dempsey says of the Lake George swim. Today, in this publicity-driven atmosphere, sponsors would be tripping over one another to offer this teenager free wetsuits and hotel rooms and meals, maybe even a van to get around. George had no sponsors, just his parents, who dropped off him and a buddy at the state-owned Hearthstone campsite, where they lived in a tent for the five weeks leading up to the swim.
“I’d get up in the morning, swim most of the day. My parents left me with a car and some money for food, and we had fake proofs so every night we went into the village looking for girls. It was just great.”
Dempsey’s excellent adventure began at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 17 in mostly calm waters at Ticonderoga, with his Boys Club coach, Bill Legacy, and Diane Struble in the guide boat. Twice he almost quit, first at 14 hours in when he felt his body go numb from the cold. The second time was at Dome Island, 9 miles from the village, when a small craft warning was posted, so ferocious were the winds and waves.
“It should have taken me 20 minutes to go past Dome Island. It took me six and a half hours. I wish I could tell you there was some noble reason for me not quitting,” he said. “I was just afraid of having to go back to the neighborhood and never hearing the end of it for the rest of my life.”
At Diamond Point, the flotilla of boats had grown to a hundred or more, and the crowd was growing down at the beach, the lights of
local TV crews searching the dark waters for any sign. George would finish in 32 hours and 15 minutes, three hours better than Struble’s time but missing by 48 minutes the mark set by a former Marine, Bill Stevens.
Today, some sharp promoter probably would get such a teenager a few lucrative endorsements for his trouble. George incurred little fame or fortune. Some local businesses gave him gifts; the Wultex clothing factory in Troy gave him a suit that sold for about $39.95 at the time. There were a couple of banquets where he got engraved plaques. And he and his dad went all the way to New York City, where talk show host Merv Griffin was supposed to introduce him from the audience, but the intro never happened.
He hoped for a college scholarship, but a tryout for Cornell went kaput, so George enrolled at the old Albany State, where he joined the swim team. It was not quite Indiana Hoosiers, but Dempsey did hold for a time the school record for the 500-meter freestyle or some such thing. Highlight of his career: Finishing second to Mark Spitz during training sessions in Fort Lauderdale.
At age 62, Dempsey is unassuming, the kind of guy who never would tell you what he did 45 years ago unless you asked. Last weekend, he was honored by the Friends of 112th Street, a group of about 300 guys who grew up in George’s old neighborhood and who get together annually to drink beer and remember people like Dempsey.
“I never got much out of it,” George told me about the Lake George run. “It wasn’t like that back then. It was just something I was pretty sure I could do, so I did it.”
John McLoughlin is a freelance columnist and a veteran Capital Region journalist now at NewsChannel13. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at [email protected]