He's a storyteller with spirit

The Baltimore Sun

Ed Okonowicz has a knack for mixing history with its ghosts.

On a recent afternoon, he demonstrated his storytelling technique with a yarn about the Jericho Covered Bridge.

He began with facts: The bridge was built in the 1800s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then he sprinkled in some hair-raising legends. In one account, people claimed they saw slaves hanging from the bridge's rafters; in another, some said their cars inexplicably stalled on the bridge.

"My stories are 50 percent history and 50 percent ghost stories," said Okonowicz, a 59-year-old Elkton resident. "Every area of the country is filled with history from the French and Indian War to the present. I start with the history, and then keep people interested with old legends and ghost stories."

Storytelling is the common thread that runs through Okonowicz's varied professional pursuits. In addition to delivering tale-weaving presentations, Okonowicz has written 28 books, created an award-winning ghost tour and teaches college-level storytelling and folklore. Early on, his work centered in Cecil County and in Delaware.

But this year, his ventures have trickled into Harford County, where he is scheduled to give six presentations on ghost stories, the Civil War and patriotic music.

Okonowicz's storytelling career got under way when he began making folktale presentations at senior citizen centers and retirement homes in 1993. But he soon discovered that his audiences had a hunger for ghost stories, he said.

"I'm not a ghost hunter," Okonowicz said. "I'm a folklorist who uses ghost stories to interest people in history. So I had to find stories to tell."

He discovered an abundance of books filled with ghost stories, but noticed a lack of Maryland-based tales, he said. He set a goal to find 10 stories about local places with resident ghosts or legends, he said. He placed a notice in local newspapers. Items with "Guy Needs Ghosts" headlines quickly led to 20 usable stories.

"After that, people from all over the place were calling or e-mailing me stories," said Okonowicz, who held a variety of writing jobs over the years before his storytelling began. "I learned to screen the calls. I was looking for stories about things moving or things the whole family saw."

He also researched stories at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, he said. As he found stories, he collected the accounts in books. He has written collections of ghost stories and legends, oral histories, biographies and murder mysteries.

In 1997, he helped start the Fort Delaware Ghost and History Tours. The first year he gave about 10 tours and by 2006, more than 10,000 people had participated in the ghost walk, he said.

"People were standing in line at places like Williamsburg to go on ghost walks," he said. "Fort Delaware has plenty of history and tales to tell. So it seemed like a good idea."

The Fort Delaware ghost tour was featured in the documentary Ghost Waters on the Learning Channel, he said.

Looking for a new way to tell stories, Okonowicz, a father of seven, decided to write books about Maryland places. In 2004 he wrote Baltimore Ghosts: History, Mystery, Legends and Lore, which features places like the Poe House and Fort McHenry. In 2007 he wrote Annapolis Ghosts: History, Mystery, Legends and Lore.

In July, he completed Haunted Maryland: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Old Line State, a 138-page book published by Stackpole Books in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Harford County sites and stories included in the book are the Jericho Covered Bridge, John Wilkes Booth and Tudor Hall, Peddler's Run, and the Spesutia Church Cemetery in Perryman.

Okonowicz has seen a growing demand for his presentations in Harford County. He is the only storyteller who makes presentations geared toward adults at the county library, said Edie White, adult department reference librarian at the Bel Air branch.

"His books cover local places," she said. "People read them and say 'I've been there' or 'I pass by that place all the time.'"

The stories Okonowicz writes and tells have a captivating nature, White said.

"I think it's everything from his voice inflection and his body language, to his choice of words that makes his storytelling so engaging," she said. "He doesn't tell spooky stories for children who love to be scared. He tells eerie stories that you have to be older to understand."

White pointed to a story called "Concert by Candlelight," about a man who is paid to tell his stories in an old movie theater in Baltimore. But when he arrives, no one is in the audience. He is told to proceed anyway, and tell only his best stories.

As he tells his stories, blurred mask-like images appear in the seats. The storyteller realizes he has been talking to the dead.

"When I read that story I just thought it was so eerie," White said. "Imagine going to a theater and realizing you have been sent to tell stories to ghosts."

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