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William R. Dorsey III was a retired maritime attorney who had been chairman of the Semmes, Bowen & Semmes law firm.
William R. Dorsey III was a retired maritime attorney who had been chairman of the Semmes, Bowen & Semmes law firm. (Baltimore Sun)

William R. Dorsey III, a retired maritime attorney who had been chairman of the Semmes, Bowen & Semmes law firm, died of kidney failure Jan. 15 at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Ruxton resident was 80.

Born in Baltimore, he was the son of William R. Dorsey Jr., a Chesapeake and Telephone Co. engineer, and Melanie Carroll Hopkinson, a homemaker. He grew up in Ruxton and was a 1952 graduate of the Gilman School, where he played tennis, baseball and basketball. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Virginia, where he was tennis team captain and sports editor of the Cavalier Daily. He later told friends the experience taught him to write on a deadline and to keep his message clear.

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He then became a Navy ensign and was assigned to the USS Chilton, an attack transport ship. He became its communications officer and later its navigator. He served in the Mediterranean and in the Caribbean. His ship was sent to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1956 when Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president, nationalized the Suez Canal. He was part of a team that took fleeing U.S. citizens and others to Naples, Italy. In 1958 his ship took Marines to Lebanon when its government needed help fighting insurgents.

After leaving military service, Mr. Dorsey received a law degree at the University of Virginia School of Law. He sat on the editorial board of its law review and belonged to the Order of the Coif and the Raven Society.

In 1962, he was admitted to the Maryland Bar and joined Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, the downtown Baltimore law firm from which he retired from active practice in 1993. He then held the post of counsel to the firm.

He began as an insurance defense attorney but changed his focus and worked closely with David R. Owens, a maritime attorney who died in 2011. He represented the Maryland Pilots Association, Bethlehem Steel Marine Division, the Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard (now the site of Harborview residential development) and the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co.

Mr. Dorsey traveled widely for his work. He spent several months in Tampa, Fla., representing a pilot of the SS Capricorn, a tanker, when it struck a smaller vessel, Coast Guard seagoing buoy tender Blackthorn, near the Tampa Bay Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980. The collision resulted in the deaths of 23 aboard the Blacktorn.

"Bill was a good trial lawyer; he was savvy," said a colleague, William W. Bartlett. "He was a good writer and was respected by his peers. He was always a gentleman in the courtroom."

Mr. Bartlett recalled his leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. "He was leading an annual legal meeting in San Diego," Mr. Bartlett said. "Bill was a steady hand on the wheel."

A 1998 Baltimore Magazine article called him the "dean of the maritime bar."

Mr. Dorsey served as his law firm's chairman from 1987 to 1991 and had earlier been its comptroller.

He sat on the Gilman School board of trustees from 1970 to 1973 and the Garrison Forest School board from 1983 to 1987, and he was a past president of Florence Crittenton Services in Hampden. He was on the board of governors of the Elkridge Club and was a past president of the Oak Hill Community Association.

He served as president of the Maritime Law Association from 2000 to 2002.

He and his wife traveled extensively. He played tennis at the Elkridge Club and was a golfer. He played many world courses, including St. Andrews in Scotland.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St., where he was a member.

Survivors include his wife of nearly 58 years, the former Anne Findlay; two sons, William R. Dorsey IV of Portland, Ore., and J. Van Lear Dorsey of Armagh Village in Baltimore County; one daughter, Rebecca Dorsey Dybas of Old Greenwich, Conn.; two sisters, Melanie Dorsey Kiser of Stuart, Fla., and Deborah Dorsey Boone of Hagerstown; and six grandchildren.

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