Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 4, Page 8
Summer 1994
Storyteller breathes life into folktales and childhood memories

     He's the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner who bought a bar
in the Polish section of Wilmington, Del., in the middle of
Prohibition. His childhood baby-sitters were former bootleggers with
names like Jersey Jack and Big Mouth Bob. And he once worked for the
Internal Revenue Service, padlocking buildings and seizing bank
     With a background like that, how could Ed Okonowicz, Delaware
'69, '84M, be anything but an engaging storyteller?
     "Many of the stories I tell, you can't hear anywhere else,
because they're mine," Okonowicz says. "People seem to like that."
     Do they ever. Since he began telling stories professionally last
December, Okonowicz has become a popular raconteur in the Delaware
Valley. His evocative tales-ranging from personal yarns to ghost
stories-have been related at retirement homes, inns, country clubs,
private parties and even a 500-seat community theatre.
     "I'm shocked that it has grown so rapidly," Okonowicz says.
"Storytelling stimulates people's imaginations in a time when
everything is so visual. Television, movies, VCRs, even music videos
and computer games-it's all visual. As a storyteller, I draw images
with words that people translate into mental pictures."
     The Elkton, Md., resident's rise as a storyteller is a pretty
good yarn in itself.
     A music education major at Delaware, he worked as a junior high
school teacher and a real estate agent before finding his way to the
Internal Revenue Service. It was during what he terms this "black
period" in his life that Okonowicz responded to a creative urge by
writing a story about a grizzled bus rider miffed by the 1970s
gasoline shortage and the crowds the crisis produced on his bus.
     The fictional piece wound up on the front page of the Wilmington
News Journal's features section. So he wrote another story, and
another, and another, on a wide variety of topics.
     Soon, Okonowicz's portfolio as a free-lance writer was sufficient
to land him a job as a public relations specialist with the New Castle
County Water Resources Agency. A year and a half later, in 1981, he
joined the staff of the University of Delaware's Office of Alumni
Relations. Eventually, he moved into public relations, and currently,
he is editor of the University's weekly UpDate, a newspaper for
faculty, staff and students.
     Okonowicz continued writing articles, one of which led to his
serendipitous introduction to storytelling early last year. Placing a
call to a beekeeper he was planning to interview, he heard an
answering machine message from the beekeeper's wife, "Debbie the
Storyteller." Intrigued, he arranged an interview with her, too. He
talked to the beekeeper for 45 minutes; to his storytelling wife for
three hours.
     Okonowicz was so fascinated by her career that he took a class in
storytelling at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., last fall. Shortly
thereafter, with the help of his wife, Kathleen, he produced a
brochure and began putting together some stories of his own. His first
outing was at the Newark (Del.) Senior Center in December, and his
avocation has been growing ever since.
     He's a member of the Philadelphia-based Patchwork: A Storytelling
Guild and the National Storytelling Association. This fall, he will
teach two continuing education courses in storytelling at the
University's campuses in Lewes and Newark.
     This past spring, Okonowicz performed with "Debbie the
Storyteller," a.k.a. Debra Ann Pieri, at Cecil County (Md.) Community
College. The concert, called "American Tales and Legends of the
Chesapeake Bay," was such a success that the duo will return in
February with ballad singer Sally Jane Denk.
     On Nov. 30, he will tell stories at the Philadelphia Museum of
Art during a program called "Traditional Americana."
     Although storytelling is a time-honored profession, dating even
before the days of minstrels and troubadours, modern audiences often
aren't sure what to expect. "There are people out there thinking,
'Where's the book you're going to read from?'" Okonowicz says. "But
I'm not reading anything; there are no notes. I'm just telling
     His tales, which last from five to 20 minutes, are best-suited
for adults, although they're not bawdy or off-color.
     Okonowicz draws his material from many sources, including older
adults and books about ghosts and local history. Naturally observant,
he finds fodder for stories wherever he goes. Some stories are true,
some are fictionalized accounts based on real characters.
     "What I love is people's eyes lighting up when they hear about
the past. Because of my help, they actually see the past right in
front of their eyes," he says.
     One of his most popular stories is "Stairway Over the
Brandywine," based on a true story of a woman who annually returned to
a stairway overlooking the Brandywine River in remembrance of a lover
lost in a war. Okonowicz recalled the tale from his youth, then
expanded on it for his re-creation.
     Many of his favorite stories are drawn from personal experience.
The bar (or beer garden, as he lovingly calls it) owned by his
grandparents and later his parents was filled with characters who now
populate his stories, such as "Cy-My Favorite
     Baby-sitter" and "Last Day at Adolph's Cafe."
     "A lot of that experience of city life in the '50s and '60s is
incorporated in what I tell," he says. "Every time I repeat these
stories, it's like you are resurrecting these people and you're
meeting your friends all over again."
     And that, he adds, is what's most satisfying about writing and
telling stories.
     "You decide who's going to live tonight, who's going to breathe
life. That is satisfying, powerful and emotionally exciting," he says.
"When you write about a real person who doesn't exist anymore, you
have the ability to make them live again after they are long
forgotten. It's almost as if someone is calling out to be remembered
in a certain way."
     Sometimes, Okonowicz molds his written articles into oral
stories. That was the evolution of Elmer and Emma, the story of a
gravedigger and his wife on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
     A father of three children, all of whom have attended Delaware,
Okonowicz would love to someday become a full-time storyteller. Seeing
the reactions of his audiences as he spins a yarn is an exhilarating
experience, he says.
     "Storytelling is different from writing because the people are
two feet away from you and you can see their reactions instantly. It's
such a high," he says. "When I can make my characters real in someone
else's mind, that's really exciting."
                                         -Marylee Sauder, Delaware '83