Anyone arriving late to Preservation Howard County’s annual celebration would have heard Fred Dorsey praising the many community activists honored by the nonprofit over the years.
What they would have missed in the longtime president’s speech on Sept. 15 at Waverly Mansion was that he had just been surprised with a lifetime achievement award recognizing his role in preserving Howard County’s history and heritage to boisterous applause and a standing ovation.
Organizers had resorted to secrecy because they were convinced Dorsey, 82, would wriggle his way out of accepting the award otherwise, humbly deflecting credit to those he deemed more deserving.
In impromptu remarks after receiving the award, Dorsey stressed that if he weren’t “able to stand on the shoulders of the 18 years of preservationists we’ve awarded, I wouldn’t be here accepting everyone’s gratitude.”
“To the board of directors, it’s a time that’s been the joy of my life,” he said.
The framed certificate was bestowed by state Sen. Clarence Lam on behalf of the Howard County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.
In another surprise, Dorsey’s son-in-law, Jeff Bronow, chief of the research division of the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, presented him with a proclamation from County Executive Calvin Ball designating Sept. 15, 2019, as Fred Dorsey Day.
Preservation Howard County board member Barbara Kellner also gave Dorsey an award on behalf of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
Preservation Howard County is known for its annual list of endangered historic sites and corresponding recommendations for their restoration and potential adaptive uses.
This year’s list of eight sites includes Mt. Ida, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, Simpsonville Mill Race, Thomas Viaduct, Troy Hill, Columbia Exhibit Center, Columbia South Entrance Bridge and Ellicott City Jail.
Dorsey told the crowd he didn’t want his recognition to overshadow that of 2019 Preservationist of the Year winners John Slater, John Byrd and Ian Kennedy, whom they’d gathered to honor.
Slater was given the Sen. James Clark Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on getting the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area designation and preserving the Thomas Viaduct in Elkridge; Byrd, who retired in June as director of the county’s Department of Recreation and Parks, was honored for stewardship of the county’s historic buildings; and Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Art and Culture Commission, was honored for grassroots leadership resulting in the redevelopment of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Preservation Howard County was founded in 2000 by Dorsey and Mary Catherine Cochran, the nonprofit’s president emeritus, and Preservationist of the Year awards were first handed out in 2002.
In her remarks at the afternoon event in Marriottsville, Cochran compared Dorsey’s work ethic to that of “a steady, steely-eyed cowboy . . . the kind that would hate this moment” because of its focus on him.
Dorsey, president of the preservation group since 2011, compiles the annual lists of endangered sites and reviews nominations for preservationist awards, which are “the two bookends of the organization and its biggest initiatives,” Cochran said after the event.
“Fred knows that by recognizing others, he’s elevating everyone’s work on historic preservation,” she said.
Martha Clark, owner of Clark’s Elioak Farm in Ellicott City and a board member since the nonprofit’s inception, described Preservation Howard County as “a small but mighty group.”
“Fred does 90% of the work and the rest of us help and encourage him,” she said. “He’s the Energizer Bunny and he responds to any request that comes in, whether someone wants information on a historic house, help in tracing blood lines or to report discovery of a gravestone behind their house.”
Other organizations in which Dorsey actively participates include the Howard County Genealogical Society, the Cemetery Preservation Advisory Board, Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, Historic Preservation Advocates, Harriet Tubman Community and Cultural Center Council, and the Belmont Manor Citizens Advisory Committee. He also gives historical tours, talks and multimedia presentations.
Bessie Bordenave, president of the Harriet Tubman Foundation of Howard County, wanted to give Dorsey an award last year for his efforts to transform the former all-black Harriet Tubman High School in Columbia into a cultural and educational center, but Dorsey didn’t believe he was deserving of the accolade and declined.
“Fred is a wonderful, knowledgeable and caring person,” Bordenave said. “Whenever we held hearings, we could always count on Fred to testify on our behalf. He’s not going to take you halfway down the road; he’s going to get you to your destination. He’s one of a kind.”
Beth Burgess, chief of the resource planning division of the county’s planning and zoning department, has worked closely with Dorsey since starting her job in 2012.
“Fred is this amazing worker bee who’s always reaching out and always showing up,” she said.
For instance, Dorsey compiled binders of information on preservation issues for the new county executive and the new Howard County Council that took office in 2018.
“Fred quotes in his binder that more than 221 buildings have been demolished in Howard County between 2008 and 2017, of which 129 were historic structures,” Burgess said. “He sees the practical nature of retaining historic buildings, knowing there can always be adaptive reuse, and he advocates directly with the building owners.”
Nicholas Redding, executive director of Preservation Maryland since 2014, said he got to know Dorsey in 2016 after the first of two catastrophic and deadly floods hit historic Main Street within two years.
“Fred is steadfast, extremely humble . . . and a man of uncommon character in an increasingly self-aggrandizing world. We could use more Fred Dorseys,” he said.
Kay Dorsey, Dorsey’s wife of 58 years, said she believes the magnitude of the appreciation shown to her husband hadn’t completely sunk in for him.
“I had been nervous about keeping this a secret,” she said. “It was fun to see everyone, and that instantaneous standing ovation for Fred with all the whooping and clapping was pretty overwhelming.”
The day after the celebration, Dorsey gave credit to the late Joetta Cramm, a local author whom he calls “the county’s unofficial historian,” for sparking his interest in historic preservation.
“We worked together for 13 years and we shared a great bond,” he said.
Dorsey listed Preservation Howard County’s current priorities: Expansion of oversight of the county’s Historic Preservation Commission; planning for Lawyers Hill, a historic property he said is suffering from “demolition by neglect”; an update of regulations and closing of loopholes for development proposals that affect any of the county’s 72 scenic roads; and restoration and adaptive use of the former Ellicott City Jail.
Preservation Howard County is also advocating for the future of three historic homes, Dorsey said.
They are: Athol, built in 1730 and situated on Martin Road; the Pue-Fulton House, built in 1865 off Old Columbia Pike in Dorsey’s Ridge and added onto in 1905; and Wildwood, built in the mid-1700s and located across from the Kings Contrivance Village Center.
“We’re interested in who the next owners will be and what will happen with these properties,” he said.
As for Dorsey continuing on as Preservation Howard County president, that appears to be a given.
“I’ve always just agreed to stay on another year,” he said.