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Obituary: James A. Dorsey Jr. / Respected 'rock hound,' former head of county welfare office

Thursday, December 26, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

James A. Dorsey Jr., former executive director of the Allegheny County assistance office, a longtime Pittsburgh volunteer and an avid lapidarian, died Saturday at Lemington Home for the Aged. He was 82 and had suffered from emphysema for years.

While Mr. Dorsey's professional career was spent in county government running the county's public welfare office, his hobby as a "rock hound" brought him notoriety.

The family story says that Mr. Dorsey and his late wife, Veola Mae "Ollie," were at a dentist's office when they happened upon a magazine article about Herkimer diamonds -- transparent, doubly-terminated quartz with 18 facets, similar to their more expensive cousins.

He and his wife drove to upstate New York, one of two places in the country where Herkimers can be mined, and from that point on, they were hooked, piling their three sons into a Volkswagen van for trips to Colorado, Arkansas, California and New Mexico to look for rocks.

Mr. Dorsey learned faceting and sphere-cutting, and was often found wearing his safety goggles behind his diamond-embedded saw at his home workshop in North Versailles.

He appeared on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," explaining rocks and gemstones. Some of his work is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Hillman Hall of Minerals, considered one of the top five museum mineral exhibits in the nation.

As the oldest of nine children, and as a grandson of Pittsburgh's first African-American physician, George G. Turfley, Mr. Dorsey knew the importance of taking care of others. His siblings looked to him for advice; sometimes they required more.

A sister, Zerbie D. Swain, of Dunbar, W.Va., recalled that he sent her $30 a month from his U.S. Army paycheck during her freshman year in college.

Mr. Dorsey enlisted in the Army in 1942 while a senior at Lincoln University.

He served in Europe and North Africa as an engineer and a mine sweeper as part of the Headquarter Company, 3rd Battalion, 371st Infantry, 92nd Division. He was discharged with the rank of first sergeant.

He fulfilled a promise he made to his wife when they traveled to Europe and visited some of the areas where he had been stationed during the war. They took the Concorde to Europe and returned on the QE 2.

A 1937 graduate of Schenley High School, he earned an undergraduate degree from Lincoln after the war and a master's degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966.

Mr. Dorsey was a board member and chairman of the Lemington Home for the Aged. He also was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and a past master of the Prince Hall Masons.

In addition to his sister, he is survived by two sons, Richard of Powder Springs, Ga., and Anthony of Uniontown; four brothers, William of Appleton, Wis., Howard of Baltimore, and Richard and Charles of Fountain, Colo.; a sister, Lois D. Aldridge of Sacramento, Calif.; and 10 grandchildren.

Viewing will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Community of Reconciliation, 100 N. Bellefield Ave.; a funeral service will follow. Burial will be at Homewood Cemetery.

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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