‘He was the one who lit that flame.’ Marblehead pays tribute to Henry Dembowski, beloved educator, director

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Editor Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter.

Henry Dembowski going through newspaper clippings and posters for his past productions PHOTO: Leigh Blander

Henry Dembowski, the educator and theater director who changed lives and launched careers, passed away Sept. 25. He was 83.

“Henry was such an enormous presence in my personal and professional life,” said Charlie Semine, who starred in two theater productions at Marblehead High School directed by Dembowksi in 1999. Semine is now a professional actor living in New York City, appearing in several TV series.

“Henry fostered an environment of generosity and curiosity that I try to bring with me anytime I’m on stage or in rehearsal,” he added.

Dembowski started his teaching career in his hometown, Lynn, in 1960, ultimately working as a principal in several Marblehead schools and superintendent on Martha’s Vineyard and with the Pentucket Regional School District. He later became a professor at Salem State and worked as a consultant with Collins Education Associates.

Dembowski lived in Swampscott for 50 years with his wife, raising two sons there and serving on the Swampscott School Committee and as an elected Swampscott Town Meeting member. 

A life on stage

It was Dembowksi’s work in theater that he may be most remembered for here on the North Shore.

Dembowski (far left) with MHS Drama Club students in the 1980s
Courtesy photo

He worked as an actor, director or producer in nearly 50  theatrical productions, including many at Marblehead Little Theater and Marblehead High School.

Geoff Van Wyck, MHS ‘09, performed in several plays directed by Dembowski, including “The King and I” and “Into the Woods.” He says Dembowski is the reason he pursued an acting career.

“Henry was the one who lit that flame. The beginning of experiencing theater and performance… it came from him. When he was speaking, his voice filled the auditorium. You always wanted to impress him.”

Eric Winick, MHS ‘86, remembers the day Dembowski stopped by his house and sat in the kitchen with Eric and his mother to talk about their production of “The Dining Room,” which went on to win top honors in the state’s Drama Festival.

Dembowski at rehearsals for The Dining Room in 1985 Photo courtesy of Eric Winick

“I remember being enthralled listening to him talk about all the great things that were going to happen with ‘The Dining Room,'” Winick said. “I had never had an experience when a teacher came over to my house and sat in my kitchen.”

Press clipping about MHS winning the state’s Drama Festival

Winick also recalls when Dembowki cast the MHS football team to perform as Russian dancers in “Fiddler on the Roof.” “He wanted to erase the barriers between sports and the arts,” Winick said. 

Winick went on to act, write and direct in college and New York City, followed by 20 years working as an arts administrator. 

‘He was really into his job

Greg Dana, a longtime MHS math teacher who retired in 2019, worked with Dembowski on about 20 productions, serving as technical director.  

“During performances, if he noticed a mistake on stage his hand would suddenly grab your arm and he’d squeeze it tight,” Dana remebered with a laugh. “He was really into his job. We had to take turns sitting next to him,”

Dana was struck by Dembowski’s generosity. 

“Each year, Marblehead Little Theater would award a scholarship to a high school senior,” Dana said. “If there were multiple kids who deserved the award, Henry would throw in his own money so they could give scholarships to more than one kid. He was exceptionally generous and cared deeply.”

Marblehead Little Theatre

Dembowski at the Marblehead Little Theatre Courtesy: Marblehead Little Theatre

Dembowski also directed, produced and acted in many productions at Marblehead Little Theatre, where he mentored more young performers.

“Twenty years ago, I played a young orphan in ‘Oliver!’ at Marblehead Little Theater, and to this day, I remember the exciting feeling of being in my first rehearsal room with Henry,” said Ari Conte, MHS ’11. “I can still hear him yell, ‘That’s it!’”

Conte continued, “From that very first rehearsal, Henry sparked a love of theater within me, one that he nurtured through multiple productions across my high school years, and one that continues to burn brightly to this day.”

Conte has worked in TV, movies and theater, recently with “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon and the movies “The Greatest Showman” and “Tick Tick Boom.”

Dembowski stayed a supporter all this time.

“Over the last few years, Henry has always been willing to meet, even in New York City, to guide and encourage me through it all, as a loving mentor,” Conte said.

Dembowski also played a leading role in raising money for MLT to move into its current home in the old firehouse on School Street. He served as MLT president.

“He was a great cheerleader,” said Andy Barnett, MLT’s facility manger and technical director. “He had a great presence.”

Dembowski partnered often with longtime MLT supporter Ginny Morton, who passed away recently.

“With the two of them dying, it’s like a big hole in our hearts,” said Barnett, who says he’ll always remember Dembowski wearing a tuxedo and introducing performances. “We wouldn’t have the firehouse if it weren’t for them.”

Dembowski was also president of the Marblehead Arts Association, Marblehead Festival of Arts and the Mass Alliance for Arts in Education. He spent a sabbatical year at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

He and his wife, Claire, established The Dembowski Family Theatre Endowment Fund at his alma mater, Salem State University. Donations may be made in his memory there.

In addition to his wife, Dembowski is survived by their son, Stephen and wife, Kristen, and their two children, Anna and Kate; his son, David and wife, Vanessa, and their three children, Max, Samantha and Alexa. 

A celebration of his life will held on Saturday, Oct. 29, 9:30 a.m. at Salem State University. Details can be found at salemstate.edu/dembowski.

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