The Irish in me…

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Mary, Robert Junior (father), Jack (on lap), Bob and Edward Dempsey (circa 1918)

During our childhood, my mother, Alberta LeGendre, spent a lot of time keeping her 2 daughters far away from the Irish part of our heritage (with the exception of Aunt Mary).  Mom’s family might’ve been a bit dysfunctional, but compared to my dad’s side of the family they were veritable angels.

Since it’s nearing St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll write a bit about the history of a side of the family known for it’s boxers (and I’m not talking about the shorts), it’s drinkers, and a childhood I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

What I write below is almost word-for-word from my mother’s memoirs, written on November 10, 1989.



Robert Louis (Bob) Dempsey Jr. and his sister, Mary Dempsey Ziegler, never agreed on the year they left the St Joseph Orphanage, Cincinnati, Oh.

Bob always insisted that he was fourteen years old when they went down to Lake Worth, Fl. — which would have to be sometime in 1924 or 1925.  Bob was born April 3, 1910.

According to Bob’s Army Records:  He left school, in Lake Worth, FL, in 1926 and was in the fifth grade.

Mary, born April 21, 1912, says that she was eleven years old when they went down to Lake Worth, FL.  from the orphanage — which would have been sometime in 1923.

I’m inclined to believe that they were released from the orphanage in late 1924 or early 1925.



When I was a teenager, schools limited the choice of vocations for girls.  Everything was for boy’s only; with the exception of cooking, sewing, bookkeeping, and stenographic courses.  (My preferences were architectural and mechanical drawing). 

In the 9th grade, I signed up for the stenographic course because I disliked cooking;  Mother had taught me sewing; I wasn’t interested in bookkeeping; and I didn’t know what the stenographic course was other than an opportunity to learn typing.

I enjoyed typing — although never a speed demon.  Shorthand was different.  The harder I tried to learn shorthand the more confusing it became.  Nevertheless, I managed to skim through the Little Rock Central High School and graduated in two and a half years (January, 1932), in the middle of the “great depression”.  Jobs were scarce for well qualified people.  I was not qualified for any type of office work.  Dad, a steam and electrical engineer, repaired an old typewriter, he had found; which gave me an opportunity to continue practicing, and hopes of eventually getting a job.

In 1936, I got a job as a typist with the Farm Security Administration, Little Rock, Ar.  The salary was $85.00 a month for women and $105.00 a month for men, all doing the same work.  Nevertheless, I felt rich.

Late 1940, I received offers from the Justice Department and the Social Security Administration, to work in Washington, DC.  Instead, I went to Phoenix, Arizona, to look for work.

I was one of the first four civilians hired to work in the newly activated Army Air Base Advance Flying School; 89th Base Headquarters Building, Williams Field, Chandler, Arizona, as a clerk in Central Files.  The entire field was under construction and each morning and evening we had to drive miles along the deep, dusty ruts of trails  winding in and out through the sagebrush, between the field headquarters and Higley, Arizona.

1942 April 16, our first large shipment of troops — about 200 enlisted men and officers — arrived from Jefferson Barracks, Mo.  The housing facilities were still in the building stage; and the men were temporarily quartered in tents, on the hot, sun baked, dusty field.  The night a severe sant storm blew in, followed by a heavy rain storm.  (first dust storm ever experienced by many of the new GIs, and their initiation to Williams Field.)

Several weeks later, I took some papers into the Message Center for delivery.  The Sergeant -in-charge yelled across the room, “Alberta here’s the man who says he is going to marry you!”  Shocked?  I had never seen the fellow before.  He was about 5’8″, 190 lbs, wearing army fatigues belted in the middle, with a trench helmet on his head, covering half of his face.  I turned around and walked out.  That was my introduction to Robert L. Dempsey Jr.

A month later, Winni, a friend, and I ran into Robert Dempsey and his enlisted friend, Eddie, at the Tempe swimming pool.  After playing in the water for awhile, we decided to go to a Mexican taco place in South Phoenix.  We ordered hte hot tacos to take out and drove over to the city park for a picnic.  Bob and Eddie had never eaten tacos before.  Winni and I enjoyed watching their reactions.

That was the beginning of the romance between Robert L. (Bob) Dempsey and Alberta LeGendre.  He asked me to marry him on our second date.  I didn’t take him seriously, because I had recently turned down two similar requests.  They were both nice clean-cut young men, but I was skeptical of their sincerity.  I suspected my car was the real attraction.

Bob was the most persistent.  We were married in Prescott, Az., April 8, 1943.  We were direct opposites in every way, shape, and form.  Bob and I took the middle road and relied upon the best personality traits in each other.  Thus, through thick and thin, we were able to enjoy the benefits, pleasures, and peacefulness of an ideal marriage for forty-one years and ten months. He passed away very peacefully in his sleep sometime during the early Sunday morning of February 3, 1985.

Bob idolized his immediate family, but had little, if any communication with his other relatives.  Those we met, we never saw more than once or twice, with the exception of his sister.  (Their constant bragging irritated him.)

Therefore, my information and knowledge of Bob’s life before we met is limited to bits and snatches of stories he would occasionally volunteer to tell me regarding the Dempsey Family and his childhood.  Most of the time he would blank those memories out of his mind.


How much of the following is actual facts or my interpretation of the facts will be hard to determine:

William -?- Curry, drowned.  Grandfather on mother’s side of the family.  He had married Caroline Palitier (French d:1939) Their children were

Johnny, Vera, Mary Ellen, and James.    

His maternal grandmother later married a man by the name of Edgar North and they had two children

Lula and Milton

William Asbury Dempsey, Sr., grandfather on Bob’s father’s side, was working in a Georgia County sheriff’s office when he was shot and killed in the line of duty.  He married Victoria Woods (Dutch).  Their children were

Lela, Margaret, Jack, William Jr., Robert Louis, and William Esther (Aunt BIll)

After Willam Asbury Dempsey, Sr.’s death, she married ____?_____ Foley.  They had 2 children

Catherine Lee (Delene) and Mary (Gussie)

Robert Louis Dempsey Sr., Bob’s father, was about 5′ 6″ tall and had a slender built.  Uneducated, as far as schooling was concerned, but had the ability to master many trades.  He was kind, reserved, and had a likable personality when sober.  Alcohol was his downfall.  He was fighting mean and uncontrollable when drunk.  (I am inclined to believe that frustration was the real culprit.)

Mary Ellen Curry Dempsey, Bob’s mother, was about 5′ 10″ tall and had a large heavy frame.  Bob adored his mother, and had fond memories of sitting on her lap while she combed his curly blond hair into long curls.  Bob was eight years old, and his world fell apart, when she died in Boston, Ma., during the 1918 flu epidemic.  She was five months pregnant.  So many were dying at that time, no one was ever able to learn where she was buried.

Bob was about nine years old when he, his sister and two brothers were placed in the St Joseph Orphanage, Hamilton, Ohio, where they remained for approximately five years.  (I assumed that since the family was always moving from one place to another, Bob never had an opportunity to attend school before entering the orphanage.  Thus, he was much older than the other children in his first grade class.)

By nature, he was timid, self-conscious, and apparently ill at ease in the surroundings.  Some of the children were mischievous when the nuns turned their backs.  If Bob was in the area, it seemed that he was automatically blamed, and punished for the incident. 

The nuns’ favorite punishment was paddling, hitting him across his hands and knuckles with a ruler, depriving him of treats allowed the other children.  Consequently, his nervous system was often in a state of shock and he frequently wet the bed, thus, receiving additional punishment and humiliation from the nuns.

There were nights when he went to bed hungry.  After everyone else was asleep, he would slip down the stairs to the kitchen and swipe bread to eat.  He ran away from the orphanage three times, but relatives always returned him to the orphanage.

After the nuns discovered Bob could sing, he was assigned to the church’s boys choir.  He enjoyed the fact that the choir boys were taken out each Sunday for a special dinner.  Nevertheless, he balked when the nuns tried to make him sing a solo.

About 1925:  The children were removed from the orphanage by their father.  He took them down to Lake Worth, Fl., where he and their grandmother (Grandma North) were living.  

1926:  Bob’s father ended his public school education. His fifth grade teacher, Mrs White, would stay after school to help him with his lessons.  It was winter time and he was  attending school barefooted.  She took him to a store and bought a pair of new shoes for him.  He was very proud of his new shoes and sincerely appreciated the teacher’s kindness.

Later, when Robert Senior saw the shoes, he went into a rage and stormed into the school building with a butcher knife threatening to kill Mrs White.  He didn’t want her or anyone else meddling into his affairs.  He could take care of his children and didn’t need her charity.  I don’t know if Mrs White was fired or she just left town.

Bob never returned to school.  He delivered papers caddied at the golf course, worked at odd jobs around Lake Worth, and fished (Sad, because he really had a brilliant mind, but had been so brow-beaten, intimidated, and ridiculed by family members and others that he just drifted along, keeping his thoughts and opinions to himself.)


I have to note:  In my mothers usual understated way, she skimmed over a truth that haunted Dad for his entire life:  His maternal grandmother and his father were in a relationship that filled him with such shame, he blushed when trying to explain it to me.  By today’s standards of reality TV, people would say, “So what?”  In 1925, Hester Prynne would’ve seemed a saint in comparison.

Next:  Untapped potential, and how to cope with a Jekyll and Hyde father.