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Memory becomes man's career, crusade

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2001

MEDFORD, Mass. -- William Hersey can remember the names of 300 people he just met. He can memorize the order of a deck of cards in a half hour. He can remember every image on every page of a magazine.

And he claims he doesn't have a good memory.

What he does have, he says, is a good system. ''It's not a talent. Anyone can learn to do it,'' said Hersey, 90.

Remembering cards and magazines served as a career for three decades, with Hersey conducting memory seminars around the world.

His message to others: ''There's an awful lot of things you can do.''

His latest project is to get people to remember history, through his short, self-published book ''Your Handbook to the American Dream,'' which translates the Constitution into modern English.

It's not his first book. His 1990 title ''Blueprints for Memory'' was called an industry classic by Frank Massine, who has worked in memory training for 12 years and runs the Memory Training Institute.

As a child, Hersey said he was a fair but not spectacular student, moving from Maine to Indiana to New York as his father, a minister, switched parishes.

He graduated from Tufts University and took a job with Standard Oil. In his 40s, he started selling mutual funds, which led the tall, talkative man to speak to a Rotary Club in 1954.

''Someone said, 'The last speaker here memorized everybody's names. Could you do that?''' Hersey recalled. ''I did it, and it went over so well I started to entertain with it.''

Then, in 1958, he was a contestant on the game show ''Concentration.'' He won because of an old Army cot that his father had purchased in 1918.

When he saw a similar item in the center of the show's rebus puzzle board, he knew his opponent was thinking it was a bed.

''I said, 'Here comes Peter COT-tontail,' and walked out with $30,000 worth of loot,'' he said. ''It changed my life.''

He published his first book at age 53, and memory became his full-time business when he was 60.

Since then, he's given memory seminars to groups in 47 states and on five continents. He's spoken before Pentagon officials, rocket scientists -- anyone who could benefit from a better memory.

In Hersey's later years, he's also taken up a different kind of remembering.

He takes regular strolls along the walkways of his alma mater, Tufts University, and last year he decided to write short histories of notable sites on campus. He then persuaded the school to make them into plaques, which are now hung inside each building.

''He's the memory of this institution,'' said Tufts President John DiBiaggio. ''Each and every time that I sit with Bill, he tells me stories of this university that I have never heard before.''

Through the years, though, he's never made a convert of his wife, Fairlee, who serves as his editor.

''I feel through my senses. And that's how I remember,'' she said. ''I don't need anything else.''



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