Life story

Life Story: Raised on a ‘pea patch,’ politically active until the end

CorrespondentFebruary 10, 2013 

  • Mabel Estelle Johnson Dorsey

    Born: March 18, 1918

    1936: graduates from Peace College

    1937-1969: chief engrossing clerk for the N.C. Senate

    1941: marries William Frederic Dorsey

    1958-1974: administrative legal secretary for Allen, Steed & Pullen

    1960: widowed

    1974-1980: executive director of the Raleigh Sales & Marketing Association

    1980-2005: executive director of the Capital Area Manufactured Housing Association

    1994: helps restore the Polk House

    2009: inducted into the Raleigh Hall of Fame

    Died: Dec. 25, 2012

    Leadership roles: Woman’s Club; PTA; charter member of Wake County Democratic Women; chair of the Raleigh Human Resources and Human Relations Advisory Committee; chair of the Wake County Alumnae Association for Peace College, as well as a member of the Peace Board of Visitors.

    Awards: Distinguished Service Awards from Peace College and the Wake County Historical Society; Wake County Volunteer of the Year Award; the Henry Marshall Award from Yates Mill Associates; life membership in the Association Executives of North Carolina; and induction into the Raleigh Hall of Fame

For someone who never held public office, Mabel Dorsey managed to influence the actions of those governing North Carolina for most of her life.

Dorsey died on Christmas morning, her two daughters by her side. She was 94, and it had been decades since she’d worked for the state legislature and years since she’d been able to hold office in any of the organizations near to her heart. But at 93, she attended a protest at Peace College upon its announcement that it would allow men to enroll and would change its name to William Peace University. She told The News & Observer she wanted the school to remain a women’s school. Friends and family say she was never shy about what she believed in and what others should believe in, too.

Dorsey’s political involvement started early. At 5, her uncle Colon Johnson was taking young Mabel around Chatham County to drive voters to the polls, introduce them to candidates and call in the votes. Among the candidates she met were Secretary of State Thad Eure and Lt. Gov. Wilkins P. Horton, a Chatham County native.

Family lore has it that once Horton was in office, he asked her family to “get Mabel out of that pea patch to come to Raleigh” to work for him. She started out as a clerk for the state legislature and was soon chief engrossing clerk in the state Senate.

She stayed on well beyond Horton’s term, which ended in 1940, and oversaw all of the secretaries and pages in the state Senate. She was in charge of hiring secretaries for senators and served as an editor of sorts, making sure the bills that passed the Senate were typed correctly, with amendments, to be forwarded to the governor.

In those days there was no full-time staff at the General Assembly, and in the offseason Dorsey kept busy with jobs that were often still quite political. At one time she worked for the North Carolina Democratic Party out of the Sir Walter Hotel in downtown Raleigh, in what she called “the center of the political universe.” It was there that she learned to operate a mimeo machine.

She also worked as personal assistant to the wife of Gov. Robert Scott, Mary Scott, where one of her responsibilities was to teach Mary how to smoke. She often helped the Scotts entertain, meeting them at the hotel to host visiting dignitaries, dressed in an evening gown. She could talk to anyone and made others feel at ease.

“We say that she was the first secretary to a first lady,” joked her eldest daughter, Miriam Dorsey of Raleigh. “She’s one of the few people I’ve ever known who was on the staff side of the legislature but acted like she was part of the legislature.”

They called her Madame Full Charge.

Raised on a pea patch

Dorsey was born in 1918, and the pea patch Lt. Gov. Horton was referring to was part of the farm where she was raised by her Uncle Colon and his wife, Aunt Alma.

Dorsey’s mother died in the flu pandemic when Dorsey was just 12 months old, and as was common at the time, she and her three siblings were sent to away to be raised by other family members.

Her aunt and uncle Johnson were unable to have children, and it was said she was “spoiled rotten” with love and affection.

It was a rural upbringing, and her early education took place in a one-room schoolhouse where she attended school just six months of the year. Still, she considered it idyllic, her daughters said. She learned to value hard work as she watched her aunt cook three meals a day for boarders.

When Horton offered her a job, she had completed just a year of studies at Peace College. The offer came just in time as her family could not afford college beyond that one year.

“As I think about mother’s life, I think one of the most important things about her is that she really maximized her potential,” Miriam Dorsey said.

She encouraged her daughters to do the same.

“Walk down Fayetteville Street with your head held high and act like you own it, even if you didn’t own an inch!” was one of mother’s favorite sayings, said her daughter Sarah Hayes, of Rock Hill, S.C.

That sense of pride apparently also meant keeping one’s darker moments private. When she was widowed at 42, her daughters recall the grief she experienced at home. They were just 16 and 13 years old, and though she eventually dated again, she never remarried. She always told them she did not want anyone else raising her children.

“She had a lot of pride and was private about many things. While she was devastated to lose our dad at such a young age, she went back to work, determined to be successful and to hold her head up and move forward,” Hayes said. “You just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on.”

Dorsey found time to volunteer with many groups, ranging from the PTA to the Women’s League, but she took on a keen interest in preservation and served as the president of the Wake County Historical Society in the late 1980s.

Among her many accomplishments were the salvation and restoration of the Leonidas L. Polk House and Yates Mill, now the Yates Mill Historical Park and Educational Center.

“She was very persuasive,” said Henri Dawkins, a member of the historical society and longtime friend of Dorsey. “She was not overbearing, but if she strongly believed in something, she sort of persuaded you until you believed in it too. She didn’t just ask you one time; she asked you three times to help with something.”

When she had a vision, she would not rest until it was a reality.

“She was the real push behind getting Yates Mill going,” Dawkins said. “She could envision it as a park before the county ever got interested in it.”

Words like “magnetic,” “mischievous” and “strong” came to mind as friends and family remembered Dorsey, a woman who started her life under the pall of a mother’s death, grew up during the Depression and spent most of her adult life a widow with two children.

“She just had this sparkle about her,” Miriam Dorsey said, like a “star.”

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