Look up "public servant" in the dictionary and you may find a picture of Margaret Dorsey. A 26-year employee of the city of Savannah, Dorsey started working for the sanitation department in 1974. Late one afternoon, 18 months later, a car hit her on Jones Street. Following several weeks of recovery, Dorsey was reassigned to sort mail in City Hall, where she stayed for 24 years. In 1998, she moved upstairs to fill the dual roles of security and public information.
She's the first person you're likely to meet coming in the City Hall front door. She'll ask you to sign in, and sign out when you leave. She'll answer your questions and give you directions.
She's the self-styled mother of City Hall, a description confirmed throughout the building.
"Margaret's always there to do the things nobody else wants to do," said catalog librarian Judith Wood. "She's ready to help, whether someone is in financial difficulty (or) has a sickness in their family, she's always looking out for them. She'll deliver food, collect money for them, send them birthday cards. "She's probably the most thoughtful person in City Hall, and one of the most thoughtful people I've ever met."
At Thanksgiving, for example, Dorsey cooked turkey and collard greens for her fellow employees, while they brought the fixins. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, she coordinated volunteers who decorated all four floors of City Hall for Christmas, and cooked another feast as Christmas Day approached. She organizes visits to sick or bereaved city employees and, according to a fellow employee, is a role model for volunteerism.
"Margaret is one of the sweetest, most effective and efficient people I have ever worked with," said colleague Cathy Cooper Long. "She knows everybody, helps everybody. If someone needs a helping hand, she's right there. She pulls together a lot of our volunteer functions; plus, she adopted a lot of us."
For the past 15 years, Dorsey has organized teams of walkers and raised money for the March of Dimes, for which she received the WSAV News 3 Senior Leader Award in 1997. She has also been active in the Savannah Police Department's Christmas in April home-repair program. She's been a Neighborhood Watch block captain in Oakland Park, promoted the United Negro College Fund and raised $4,000 for the American Heart Association. She served two years as vice president of the SPD's Volunteers in Policing program and received the United Way's Legendary Customer Service Award.
Dorsey has two daughters (a third died of cancer in 1999), eight grandchildren, one great grandson, six goddaughters, four godsons "and several god-great-grandchildren." She's a member of the First African Baptist Church and serves on the usher board.
She says Savannah is a better place to live now than when she arrived with her husband, Fred, on New Year's Day 1974.
"River Street was all warehouses then," she recalls. "As years went on they renovated those buildings and opened shops. We have a lot of movies and celebrities here now. Sure, it's better."
It's also worse, she says, because of increased noise, traffic and crime. Dorsey believes that prayer should be allowed in school, that parents should discipline their children to keep them out of serious trouble and that criminals should be punished. Still, her benevolence extends even to them.
"They should receive some kind of training," so they have a skill when they are released, she said. "They shouldn't just be sitting there."
Born in Elizabethton, N.C., and raised in New York City, Dorsey tries to see the good in people.
"I am a people person," she explained. "I like people. I'm a happy person and that helps me try to find the good in them. Sometimes people just need a hug. My mother (83-year-old Monnie McKiver) always told me, 'If you have been blessed, pass it on.' I do that every chance I get."
Dorsey is also outspoken. Thanks to her perseverance, City Hall employees have a lounge with a view of the river, drapes and carpet, tables and chairs, an exercise cycle, refrigerator and microwave oven. It's a place employees can eat, socialize and even meditate.
Dorsey is retiring July 31. Such is her stature that her retirement party will be held in the ballroom of the Savannah Civic Center. Mayor Floyd Adams and City Manager Michael Brown are just two of the most notable figures likely to attend.
"Margaret has been a key member of the city family," Brown said. "(She) has been a tireless contributor for both the city of Savannah and for the community. (Her) helpful spirit has permeated City Hall. She's a great cook and has brought us many good things to eat, especially in holiday seasons. We wish her the best of luck and hope that she can spend well-deserved time with her family and friends."
She says she'll get up every morning and continue her volunteer work, but Dorsey will miss her daily routine.
"I'll miss it all coming to work every morning, and seeing my fellow employees," she said. "It's a part of me."
Nevertheless, Dorsey said with a smile, "at the end of the day on July 31, I'm going to go around the fountain (in the City Hall foyer) and shout, "Free at last, free at last! Thank God almighty, I'm free at last!"
She's only half joking. "I think it's time. I don't have to work anymore." After retiring, she'll visit friends and family in North Carolina and New York before returning to Savannah to continue her volunteer work.
The city of Savannah will be hard pressed to find two or even three public servants to fill Dorsey's shoes.
"They'll never be able to find anyone as dedicated as Margaret," Wood said.
Russ Anderson can be reached at 525-5500 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.