Sunday, February 14, 2010

Walter B. Dorsey, Third Generation Political Legend, Remembered


Last December 6 Southern Maryland lost a fascinating political legend, a brilliant legal mind, one of the most colorful prosecutors and defenders in Maryland and a founder of the conservative movement within the Democratic party that has now extended from coast to coast when Walter B. Dorsey lost a decades long battle to cancer.

I was honored to spend time interviewing Walter shortly before his death and to gain a deep appreciation of the fascinating family history interwoven into the Maryland political landscape by the Dorsey family. Talking to Walter, in spite of the medical difficulties he experienced, was a bit like listening to a famed politician like Tip O'Neil from Massachusetts, former Speaker of the House and legendary story teller. I had occasion to visit with Tip and Walter holds his own in that league.

His love of life, even with his condition, always trumped the difficulties he faced and after we talked Walter was off in a car driving to Florida with his oxygen bottles and survival gear daring the Angel of Death to just try and take him. There simply are no more politicians like Walter left and it would be a crying shame if the lessons he could teach us are not learned.

When he died it was the end of a tumultuous yet golden era in Southern Maryland and statewide politics as this third generation public servant put his indelible stamp on history and left a rich legacy of service, a shrewd record of political survival and a mosaic of interwoven personal experiences that made Walter bigger than life.

Then again, it was only appropriate that this son of a son of a son of an Irishman would use his Irish wit, his Leprechaun mischief, his command of language and gift of storytelling to mesmerize juries, outwit the opposition and more likely than not aggravate the judges while amassing a stunning record of victory in court and politics.

Walter was first and foremost a people person with a love of knowledge, a hunger for defending the little people and a panache for competition and controversy. He came from two generations of political activists, a heritage in Southern Maryland transcending centuries and a desire to fight for what was right.

Before that the ancestral family came from Ireland by way of England, France and Nordic countries with the name changing from D'Arcy in France to Dorsey in Ireland. It was Ireland where Phil's brother John met the Mayor of Dublin, John Dorsey, on a trip.

Fate put him in a family where politics ran in the blood. His great grandfather was Philip Dorsey, born in Calvert County but an adventurer who was part of the 1849 gold rush in California. Walter once told me family lore says his great grandfather Philip found gold and once owned a claim to what became San Francisco. Then he caught a ship for home that sailed around South America.

Family legend has it the ship wrecked rounding Cape Horn off Chile and Philip was lost at sea and given up for dead. More than two years later he showed up in Maryland saying he walked all the way up the Amazon through South, Central and North America to St. Mary's County, Maryland. As for his claim for San Francisco, he probably lost it in a poker game.

His grandfather, Walter B. Dorsey, was first elected to the Maryland House of delegates in 1911 while his father, Judge Philip H. Dorsey was a Circuit Court Judge who was elected Senator in 1926 and to the House of Delegates in 1930 and 1934. Walter was first elected State Attorney in 1954, then elected to the State Senate in 1958, the third generation Dorsey to serve in the state legislature. He was then elected State Attorney again in 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994. From 1962-66 he served as Assistant Attorney General for the state and in the 1970's he served as the Deputy Maryland Public Defender.

During the three generations of Dorsey politics Southern Maryland became a hotbed for statewide politics and many a weekend was spent at the Dorsey home with whoever the presiding governor of Maryland might be. You see, in those days the Democrats controlled the Baltimore area and the Republicans controlled the Washington suburbs. To win you often needed St. Mary's County and that meant the Dorsey family.

After a volatile, stellar and most unusual political career Walter then went on to build businesses with his brother and son and was behind many developments in St. Mary's County along with building a Checkers hamburger franchise of nearly a dozen stores throughout Maryland.

Though not a Catholic he was a friend of many Catholic leaders in the Archdiocese and often the Catholic sermons in the county included a priest singing the praises of the latest Dorsey candidate for public office. He was also generous to a fault and never hesitated to help out an organization working to benefit the people of the county.

His years in public service saw many landmark legal cases, numerous precedent setting decisions, and a colorful history that will never be matched again. Maryland will be without a proper and accurate history of the 20th century if the Dorsey story is not told by his surviving children, Philip H. Dorsey, III, Helen Marie Dorsey and John Michael Dorsey. Then again, a fourth generation Dorsey in politics might just be a good thing as well.

In terms of family heritage in Coltons Point, the family still has property in Coltons Point overlooking St. Clement's Island. They are directly related to the Blackistone family who owned St. Clement's Island and Manor having acquired it in the 1600's through marriage to the Gerard family. The Gerards were the original aristocrats of St. Clement's Island and Manor fame and they were financiers of the Ark and the Dove trip to Maryland in 1633.


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