by Sue Ann Rybak
Bill Ochester, 63, of Mt. Airy, has always been fascinated by history. But when he decided to leave his job as a cardiothoracic physician’s assistant in 1998 to portray Benjamin Franklin, who was born 308 years ago as of Jan. 17, many of his colleagues thought he was crazy. “My brain was fried,” Ochester said. “I couldn’t do it, anymore. It was literally life and death everyday.”
Ochester’s journey to become a historical interpreter began by accident. He was sitting in the General Lafayette Inn one night in 1998 having a beer when he noticed a recruiting poster for the Continental Light Dragoons. “I have always been fascinated with stories of the Revolution and the Founding Fathers,” Ochester said.
Ochester soon became hooked on reenactments and started working part-time as a tour guide. “I just love it,” he said. “It’s just this spectacular, proud thing to do. I think all Americans should have some idea of the trials that the nation went through when we first got started. What their values were. What they struggled with. Who they were. It’s important [for people] to have a sense of American Identity, which we are losing now.”
While Ochester has portrayed other 18th century character roles including Baron von Stueben and Dr. Phillip Syng Physick, he loves being Ben. Ochester credits Barbara, his wife of 40 years, for prompting his career as Benjamin Franklin. She encouraged him to leave a successful career to follow his heart.
“I am not a formally trained actor,” Ochester said. “I just have a deep interest in American history and this extraordinary man. There has never been another individual like Benjamin Franklin in our nation’s history.”
Ochester said Franklin is often referred to as the “First American” because his life exemplified many of the values Americans still hold dear today. “Nobody has his breadth of accomplishment on so many fronts — as a politician, diplomat, scientist, inventor, writer and philosopher,” Ochester said. “All of these things were combined in one man, and he made it seem effortless.”
Benjamin Franklin actually has two birthdays. Ochester said Benjamin Franklin’s birth certificate indicates he was born on Jan. 6, 1706. But in 1752, England and the colonies switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which was 11 days behind.
Although Franklin only had two years of formal education, he helped to found a university, a hospital, fire insurance company and public lending library. While Franklin is renowned for inventing the lightning rod, he also invented swim fins, the odometer, bifocals, the Franklin stove, glass harmonica and many others. Franklin never patented any of his inventions, believing that “As we benefit from the inventions of others, we should be glad to share our own … freely and gladly.”
Franklin was the first person to propose Daylight Savings Time. He also introduced tofu to the colonies in a letter dated Jan. 11, 1770 to Philadelphia’s most famous botanist, John Bartram. Franklin sent Bartram soybeans seeds (which he called “Chinese caravances”) and a recipe for “a kind of cheese made in China from a little bean.”
“History is the story of people,” Ochester said. “It’s not about dates. It’s not about battles. It’s not about politics. It’s the story of people. And if you tell a history story correctly, you engage somebody else. It’s almost like gossip. If I tell you a good gossip story and I stop, you are gonna say, ‘Wow, what happened then?’ That’s exactly what should happen with history.”
One of Ochester’s favorite things to do is visit elementary schools and give presentations about the life and times of Ben Franklin. He likes to bring Franklin alive by using authentic props in his presentations, including his spectacles which are original (circa 1750) and his Poor Richard’s Almanac.
In his presentation, “A Visit with Ben Franklin,” the audience is transported back in time to an 18th century portrait studio where artist/musician Steve Pullara, awaiting the arrival of Dr. Franklin, entertains the audience with song and story. Students learn about Dr. Franklin through Ochester’s witty dialogue, fun history facts and drawing lessons with Pullara. When asked what advice he had for a struggling fellow writer, Franklin said “Energy and persistence conquer all.”
Ochester has performed at the National Constitution Center, Cliveden, Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Orchestra, Independence After Hours tours and the University of Pennsylvania’s Annual Quizzo Competition. He is also an accomplished historical tour guide in Old City Philadelphia and Valley Forge.
For more information about Bill Ochester as Dr. Benjamin Franklin, call 215-601-7051 or visit www.bfranklinprinter.com/default.html.