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An Advocate for All Children


Sam Dempsey’s contributions to the State of North Carolina has been honored by him receiving the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award. Since 1963, North Carolina's governors have reserved this – their highest honor – for “persons who have made significant contributions to the state and their communities through their exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments.”

Lisa Farrimond, who nominated him for the award, announced it at a retirement reception for Dempsey on Dec. 17. You will find more pictures from the reception and from students at Your Permanent Record.

Sam 22 By Kim Underwood

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

DECEMBER 13, 2018 – For 36 of the 40 years Sam Dempsey has been an educator, he has directed programs that serve students with special needs. Since 2000, he has done that as the head of the Exceptional Children’s Division of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

Over the years, Dempsey said, he has worked with thousands of people working to serve students with special needs.

“It’s been a real honor,” Dempsey said. “It’s been a real privilege to do that and be able to make a difference over the years.”

At the end of this month, Dempsey – whose official title is Chief Program Officer – is retiring.

Superintendent Beverly Emory had this to say: “Sam Dempsey has been a leader and advocate for all children his entire career. The many other details, logistics and management functions that Sam has ‘just taken care of’ we likely cannot fully comprehend.”

“Our gratefulness for his many years of service and commitment to this work will extend well beyond the moment he leaves us. He deserves to smile a lot, and relax and enjoy life!”

Sam 30 Kenneth Simington, the school system’s Chief Academic Officer, also spoke highly of Dempsey.

“Our district has been extremely fortunate to have an EC director like Sam Dempsey,” Simington said. “Sam's knowledge and reputation in EC circles is unsurpassed. Sam and I have been involved in a number of projects over the years. Some of those projects were EC focused and some have been for regular education students.” 

“In all instances, Sam's approach and work ethic is always at the highest level. We will certainly miss his breadth of knowledge and expertise but wish him well as he moves on to the next chapter in his life.” 

The Exceptional Children’s Division serves about 7,700 students. About 1,000 adults work with those young people in a number of roles – teacher, teacher assistant, speech/language pathologist, interpreter. The list goes on.

With students with special needs, Dempsey said, you’re helping not only the students “but also those around them,” and, over the years, he has worked hard to serve both the students and their families.

Sam 82 “Everyone wants the best for their child,” he said.

What that looks like, though, is not the same for everyone, he said, and, inevitably, some people aren’t happy with some decisions. For them, he does what he can to make a connection and find some way forward.

“The positive things are what make it worthwhile and keep you going,” he said.

High on the list of positive things are the smiles on students’ faces.  

Dempsey has also been active at the state level in helping students with special needs. His work has influenced state laws and helped establish such programs as the Occupational Course of Study (OCS), one of the paths to graduation for students with disabilities. OCS has helped made the Exceptional Children’s Division one of the subgroups in the WS/FC school system with the highest rate of graduation – 96 percent.

For a number of years, Dempsey worked with the state and other school districts about policies affecting Medicaid money. For the past 14 years, he has been working with others on developing a software system designed to make everything more efficient and to reduce paperwork.

All of that work requires a lot of research and attention to details.

“I have had to learn a great deal more than I ever thought I wanted to know,” he said and laughed.

Sam 2 Bill Hussey, a retired State Director of Exceptional Children Services, said, “Sam has been a visionary leader in developing programs for children with special needs.”

After noting about some of the programs that Dempsey has been instrumental in developing at the state level, Hussey said, “His heart and commitment has been to kids and their families, and what he could do to make their lives better. He is not only a pillar and champion in the special education community, he is a kind and compassionate human being.”

He has helped others, in part, by being clear about what he considers the best path forward. When Dempsey applied for the job here, Don Martin was the superintendent for WS/FC Schools.

“I remember checking references after Sam Dempsey had been interviewed for the Exceptional Children Director's position,” Martin said. 

“I was speaking to a state level person that knew me and Sam.  I had asked him for his assessment of Sam's working knowledge about EC programs. He told me that Sam absolutely ‘knew his stuff,’ but he wasn't sure that we would get along – he said that Sam was a little outspoken!  I said that, if he knew his stuff, we would get along great, and we did for 15 years.”

Sam 46 “He was outspoken in the best way. He advocated for students, balanced best practices with parent requests, and created a system of equitable services throughout the district. He was always on the cutting edge of national trends in exceptional students' programs.”

“Sen. Richard Burr helped us get an audience with U.S. Department of Education staff when No Child Left Behind was being implemented.  I believe that our voices contributed to others that resulted in some changes in the assessment requirements for some of our students. He advocated for technological tools for our teachers that helped them manage their work load – long before the state-level tools were even considered. He was a tireless worker and ‘outspoken’ leader for exceptional children.”

Those who work with him day-to-day also appreciate Dempsey.

For the past 10 years, Lisa Farrimond has served as Dempsey’s administrative assistant.

“He is so deserving of recognition for his work for students with disabilities here at WS/FCS and throughout the state,” Farrimond said. “Special education administrators across North Carolina have great respect for Sam’s experience and knowledge and often seek his guidance for their special education needs.” 

Sam 1 “As Sam’s assistant for more than 10 years, I have witnessed his compassion and dedication to enrich the lives of our students. Sam often shares parables from his experiences and travels to the day-to-day functions in the EC Division as a means to encourage EC staff. Those moments will be missed.”

Lisa Wood is the Budget/Finance Manager for the EC Division.

“I’ve worked for Sam 16 years, “Wood said. “Under Sam’s stewardship, the Exceptional Children’s Division has been able to reach our vision and maintain our Core Values.”

“Sam has devoted his life to educate people with disabilities and foster their independence.  He believes in the respect and value of all individuals regardless of their diversities.”


When Dempsey headed off to college, he had no plans for a career working with students with special needs.

Sam 2 Dempsey, who turned 67 earlier this year, was born in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Oak Ridge was established during World War II as a production site for the Manhatten Project, which developed the atomic bomb At one time, Dempsey said, it has the highest concentration of PhD’s in the world.

His father, who had a third-grade education, served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II and later made his living as a security guard. His mother worked such jobs as clerk and secretary. His parents met while she was working as a clerk in a store.

“My father walked in, and it was instantaneous,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey was the second of what came to be four children in his family.

“We were fairly poor,” he said. “I got my inoculations at the public health clinic. I was on the early version of free or reduced-price lunch.”

The potatoes and other vegetable they grew in the garden helped feed the family, and clothes often came from older cousins. Of those, there were many. Both of his parents were the youngest of seven children. That meant that many of his cousins were substantially older. One of his cousins fought in World War I.

For most of high school, Dempsey didn’t think he would be able to go to college. During his senior year, an English teacher who believed in him helped him to come to believe in himself and to see that college was a real possibility. Between scholarships and work study, he was able to attend Warren Wilson College in western North Carolina. He regularly worked weekends and holidays.

“I didn’t come home for close to a year,” he said.

Sam 96 Thinking that he would become a teacher, he majored in political science and history. His father had died while he was still in high school, and, after he graduated, he returned home to help support his mother and younger sisters. While working in a print shop, he also worked on finishing a house that his parents had started.

Dempsey did not yet have his teaching certification. To earn that, he began working on a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee. A summer job working with students with severe disabilities at a center in Kingston, Tenn., sparked an interest in working with students with special needs.

In those days, there was a surplus of teachers, and, initially, he taught social studies at a middle school, as well as coordinating special education programs. The years that followed took him to other school systems in Tennessee where he took on more responsibilities working with students with special needs.

One Friday afternoon, the superintendent informed him that, as of Monday morning, he would be the director of the special education programs for the school system. The school system had been having difficulty complying with state and federal regulations pertaining to students with special needs and dealing with all of that became his responsibility.

Sam 60 Dempsey and his wife, Dee Edelman, are Quakers, and they met at an international Quaker conference. At the time, Dempsey was working on his doctorate in special education and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Edelman was working and living in Asheville. He moved there in 1994 and became the Director the Exceptional Children Program for Asheville City Schools.

After his mother became seriously ill, Dempsey found himself driving back to Tennessee frequently and the dissertation never quite got completed.

“I got the knowledge out of it whether I got the paper or not,” he said.

Edelman is an educator as well. When they moved here for him to take the job with WS/FC Schools, she began serving as a school counselor in elementary schools. Before retiring two years ago, she worked at Kernersville, Union Cross and Flat Rock elementary schools.

Dempsey and Edelman are both quite active.

“We have bicycled from one end of Prince Edward Island to the other,” he said.

Cake 64 For 20 years, Edelman served as an instructor for Outward Bound, which provides people with experiences in wilderness settings.

Dempsey was a competitive rower. His experience as a competitive rower and as a special education teacher led to him being asked to referee a race in which students with special needs were participating.

“I kept reffing,” Dempsey said. “Rowing is not a big money sport. If you’re lucky, you get your lunch, and, if you drive far enough, they will put you up.”

Eventually, he was judging international competitions. The international organization that oversees rowing was established as The Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d'Aviron, and, with everything official spoken in French before being spoken in French at one time, Dempsey had to make sure his French was sharp. These days, English is the first language. 

That part of his life has taken him to Hungary, Croatia, Canada, China, and to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

These days, the rowing he does personally is on the rowing machine at home.

He is also active in Special Olympics and serves as a judge for the international Paralympics. His volunteer work assisting those with special needs has taken him to China, India and South America.

Once Dempsey retires, he and his wife plan on taking more bicycling adventures.



Kim Underwood