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Statesboro newcomer Bill Simpson is sharing his life's hobby with Sallie Zetterower Elementary. Simpson is placing more than 40 hand-carved, hand-painted, maritime masterpieces he created from scratch on long-term display at the school.
"I hope the ships will increase the children's interest in history and encourage them to develop skills that use their hands and minds," said Simpson, who's shared his talent with others for more than 60 years.
His collection, carved from African mahogany, balsa and birch woods, was previously displayed at Citrus High School in Inverness, Fla., but when Simpson and his wife Mattie relocated to Statesboro to be nearer their retired son, the collection needed a new home too.
Statesboro resident Verdery Kennedy met the Simpsons at church.
"They were looking for a college town and fell in love with Statesboro," Kennedy said. "It's a treasure to have these Sotheby's- quality pieces here."
Kennedy and her husband Mike were instrumental in helping relocate the collection to Statesboro.
"Georgia Southern nor the Averitt Center had space to house a permanent collection, but when we called David Ball with the Board of Education, it got the ball rolling," she said.
Simpson spent his birthday helping unload the carvings at Sallie Z, and has become like an artist in residence at the school while he works almost daily to repair ships and prepare cases for display.
"His pieces from the Civil War and Byzantine Empire correspond perfectly to our fourth and fifth grade curriculum," said Sallie Z. Principal Todd Williford.
Nine encased pieces, such as the following, are already on display in the school's media center: (1) The world's first ironclad, a Korean turtle ship, built 200-250 years before the Merrimac and Monitor; (2) a spar torpedo boat, the CSS David, that resembled a submarine but was not completely submersible; and (3) a Phoenician galleass which was a popular Mediterranean merchant and military vessel propelled by human oarsmen.
"The children are immediately drawn to the cases," said Sallie Z. media parapro Sonya Stone.
"I've always felt I was building a history of the world through ships," Simpson said.
His carvings depict maritime history from the oldest known vessel, a 4,500 B.C. plank ship, to a World War II landing craft tank.
"The opportunities to use these to study art, ship building or the sociology of different cultures are endless," Kennedy said.
Simpson's own ship building history began at a young age. He always loved crafting things with his hands. While in college, where he majored in chemical engineering, he found a picture of a ship in a magazine, decided to draw his own plans, build it, and after that he was hooked.
"I don't use the Internet for research; I've always enjoyed libraries," Simpson said. "When I lived in Louisville, Indianapolis and Kansas City, I loved their multi-stored libraries where there were many books about ships."
Simpson poured over pages and drew design plans straight from pictures.
He's humble about his skill saying, "I'm not talented, just determined."
At 80 he still designs and carves pieces that take him three weeks to a year to build.
"I want to make the U.S.S. Missouri," he said.
Missouri is the name given to four American ships, but his reference is to the World War II era battleship that was the site of the official Japanese surrender.
He's passionate about both his ships and their history.
"My wife's favorite is The Portland, a passenger steamer that disappeared with everyone aboard on Thanksgiving Day 1898, in the now infamous Portland Gale," he said.
Pointing to a 19th-century steamboat Simpson said, "This is my oldest. I finished it the day my son was born."
Simpson's personal favorite is a 100-gun British warship, The Royal George.
"I'll keep it at home as long as we have room."
A well-worn notebook, with yellowed, handwritten and typed pages holds a brief history of all his carvings. He painstakingly researched his subjects before ever carving a notch. The school in which they were previously housed created a website and study guide for students throughout Florida to use for research.
"We have to preserve those notes," said Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Lewis Holloway.
"Though we couldn't house the collection, we are making a member of our staff available to help preserve his writings and assist the school system in creating lesson plans from them," said Averitt Center Director Tim Chapman.
Statesboro residents can also view Simpsons' work at the Statesboro Regional Library, where the U.S.S. Enterprise, the first ship to successfully sink a Barbary pirate ship, is now on display. He has also donated a Byzantine dromon to First Presbyterian Church.