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Charles H. Dorsey Jr., 64, legal aid director


An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly indicated the time of funeral services for Charles H. Dorsey Jr. A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow at the Basilica of the Assumption, 400 Cathedral St., Baltimore. The Sun regrets the error.

Charles H. Dorsey Jr., a defender of legal rights for the poor during 21 years as executive director of Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, died of a heart attack Friday at Liberty Medical Center. He was 64.

"He had a zest for justice for all people. He dedicated his life to assuring access for all people to the legal system," said Harriet Taylor, deputy director of the Legal Aid Bureau for the past 11 years.

Mr. Dorsey had seemed in good health, and went to work Friday as usual, according to his brother, William A. Dorsey. "He was the kind of farmer who thought that he should die behind the plow."

Mr. Dorsey was the first African-American undergraduate at Loyola College in Baltimore, and the first black named to the state Board of Law Examiners, which writes and grades essay questions on the state bar examination.

Born and raised in West Baltimore, he attended St. Catherine's Academy and spent six years preparing for the priesthood at Epiphany Apostolic College in Newburgh, N.Y. He left the seminary, he once said, "to be more involved in the rough-and-tumble life."

After winning admission to the previously segregated Loyola College, Mr. Dorsey interrupted his education to enlist in the Air Force. He served in Korea and was discharged as a first lieutenant.

He returned to Loyola and received his degree in 1957. In 1983, he was the recipient of the school's Alumni Laureate Award.

Mr. Dorsey received his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1961 and entered private practice with the firm of Brown, Allen, Russell and Watts. During the late 1960s, he was a member of the Baltimore Welfare Commission and was an assistant city solicitor under George L. Russell Jr.

Mr. Dorsey, a longtime Republican, "worried that his clients would suffer in this age of downsizing," his brother said. "He had an undying belief that poor people were entitled to the same level of legal representation as anyone else in this country."

Mr. Dorsey joined the Legal Aid Bureau in 1969 as deputy director, and was named executive director in 1974. The bureau -- a nonprofit organization providing civil legal services to the poor -- then had just two offices outside Baltimore. Under his leadership, it grew to have a network of offices across the state, with several hundred lawyers, clerks and staff.

He broadened the bureau's focus from divorce and custody cases to landlord/tenant, Social Security, welfare and unemployment cases.

Mr. Dorsey often defended his legal team as the equal of any private law firm in the state. Under his direction, the bureau took many cases to the Supreme Court.

One successfully challenged federal rules barring children born out of wedlock from receiving Social Security benefits from their deceased fathers. He also filed the suit that curbed crowding in the state's prisons.

He fought to preserve the bureau's effectiveness for its clients during repeated attempts by state and federal government to reduce its public funding. "If people don't have access to the courts," he said, "there's more of a tendency to take the law into their own hands. And I think that is detrimental to everybody in this society."

Mr. Dorsey was a member of the Maryland State Bar Association, the Bar Association of Baltimore City and the Monumental Bar Association.

Long active with the Catholic Church and Catholic Charities, he was a former director of the West Baltimore Interfaith Interracial Council and recipient of the Papal Order of the Knights of St. Gregory, the highest lay honor the church bestows.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Basilica of the Assumption, 408 N. Charles St.

Mr. Dorsey is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, the former Agnes Smith; four daughters, Kathleen Dorsey Bellow of Lakes Charles, La., Andrea Simmons of Tucson, Ariz., Claire Dorsey of Honolulu and Judith Jackson of Baltimore; and five sons, Dr. Peter J. Dorsey of Lake Charles, and Charles H. Dorsey III, Leonard P. Dorsey, Martin D. Dorsey and Nicholas G. Dorsey, all of Baltimore.

Also surviving are two sisters, Mary Scott and Monica Henson, both of Baltimore; three brothers, Francis X. Dorsey and William A. Dorsey, both of Baltimore, and Cornelius N. Dorsey of Beaufort, S.C.; and eight grandchildren.

The family suggested memorial donations to Associated Black Charities, 1114 Cathedral St., Baltimore 21201.

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