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An audience full of sixth-graders laughed as a nationally renowned children's safety, self-esteem and anti-violence expert struggled to carry a heavy suitcase across the stage in the Natrona County High School auditorium.

Retro Bill, or Bill Russ, is an official D.A.R.E. buddy and host of National Kids Day. Russ was the keynote speaker at the sixth-grade Casper D.A.R.E. graduation Wednesday.

Sometimes life forces people to carry excess baggage around, Bill said, as he dragged the suitcase behind him. But people cannot let baggage that is a part of life change their attitude or interfere with school or work. Students, Bill said, must always remain positive.

When the baggage gets too heavy, "talk to someone, a teacher, a D.A.R.E. officer, and it's like putting a heavy suitcase on wheels," Bill said, and two wheels popped out of the base of his suitcase. "You can deal with it," Bill added as he pulled the suitcase behind him with ease.

Retro Bill, a persona created by Russ, looks a little like Elvis Presley and acts a little like Jim Carrey from "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.".D.A.R.E. Director Jim Keeran introduced Retro Bill as "the guy with cool hair, cool clothes and a cool message."

Bill speaks to an estimated million students a year about making good choices, respecting themselves and others and staying safe. The sixth-graders cheered and giggled as Bill told jokes and stories about his own childhood. With props including rubber chickens and garbage cans, Bill delivered the audience a message: don't be afraid to say no to dangerous choices, and ask for help when faced with trouble.

Teachers, Bill said, are a great source for help because they care about students. "Teachers do what they do for one reason, and that is because they rock," Bill said.

Bill asked the children to think about what their parents, teachers and D.A.R.E. officers expect of them when they are faced with difficult decisions. "Make good choices. Grow up to be anything you want to be," he said.

Bill told anecdotal stories about kids who were down and tried drugs, alcohol or cigarettes in moments of weakness. These kids, Bill said, did not ask for help and did not walk away.

"Don't ever be afraid to walk away," Bill said, telling the riveted sixth-graders one drug can lead to another, and drugs can lead to lost dreams.

"Don't ever throw your dreams away. You're a D.A.R.E. graduate," Bill said.

Bill's presentation is called "Safety and Self-Esteem." Topics discussed in the sometimes improvisational show range from bullying, drugs and alcohol, self-esteem and respect. Cheri Frimml, event organizer, said the event was designed so as many kids as possible would be able to attend the shows. Multiple presentations were planned. The largest show was mainly for the sixth-graders.

There are around 850 sixth-graders involved in the Casper D.A.R.E. programs, and around 700 planned to attend. Retro Bill gave two speeches at NCHS and one at Southridge Elementary. "I hope the kids leave holding their heads high, feeling empowered," Frimml said. "Retro Bill is the most in-demand school speaker right now, so that is why we nabbed him up."

"If you don't use drugs, you make good decisions, you are going to make your city a better place," Casper Police Chief Tom Pagel said, encouraging the students before Bill took stage.

Terry Cometto, sixth-grade teacher at St. Anthony's Tri-Parish School, said she brought 18 D.A.R.E. graduates as a fun activity to end the program. "They are talking a lot about what they learned in D.A.R.E.," Cometto said.

Bill donated 60 copies of a D.A.R.E. safety tips video he made to the police agencies in the state during his presentation. He had already donated 100 copies of his video to the D.A.R.E. program in Wyoming.

"You only have one D.A.R.E. graduation and it is today," Bill said, and advised students to remember what they had learned.

"Find your passion and never look back," he said.

Staff writer Caroline May can be reached at (307) 266-0616 or caroline.may@casperstartribune.net.

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