Appreciation

Recalling critic John Dorsey: friend, colleague, fast on his feet

April 14, 2008

Before there were blogs or podcasts or online chats, Baltimore journalist John Dorsey, who died Friday at age 69, made his mark the old-fashioned way -- by sheer dint of the written word.

During four decades as a feature writer and critic for The Sunday Sun and The Sun, his writing had an impact not because it was instantaneous but because it was enduring. And, yet, he brought something new to the paper -- a fresh eye on art, a different way of looking at Baltimore's emerging restaurant scene and its changing urban landscape.

Following are reminiscences of him from other journalists who knew him as both a colleague and a friend:

A taste barometer

John Dorsey believed that the essential element of criticism is praise. This didn't mean he lauded everything he saw. He was far too discerning for that.

But when he saw something worthy of praise, he took great joy in championing it -- whether this meant adding insights to the body of criticism on an old master (he was fascinated by Rembrandt's self-portraits) or cheering on the career of a budding local artist.

And he knew criticism from both sides. Not only was he the author of several books, but after retiring from The Sun, he was invited to curate exhibits -- an unexpected and happy post-career career. For most of John's tenure as The Sun's art critic, I shared a computer with him (this was before Sun reporters had their own PCs). We gossiped and griped and traded advice about writing.

Most of all, I relied on John as my "taste barometer." In a society descending deeper and deeper into crassness, John remained a true gentleman, with an unfailing sense of what was appropriate and what was over the line. Even though John achieved considerable renown as the Sun's first restaurant critic, he claimed that eventually he ran out of new ways to describe a crab cake. He never, however, ran out of new ways to describe art.

Maybe the difference was that, though eating is a requirement of life, art is what makes life worth living. I think John would have agreed with that, but how I wish I could turn my chair toward his desk one more time and run that notion by him. J. Wynn Rousuck Former Sun theater critic

`Ravening wolves'

For most of the time I knew John Dorsey, I didn't think of him as The Sun's restaurant critic, a job he wearied of and happily relinquished so he could do what he really wanted to do: be the paper's art critic. His graceful, clear prose about artists and their art is what I remember most about his work here. And yet when I was editing the paper's twice-yearly dining guides, he would always step back into his old role as a favor to me and take on the restaurants I thought were most important or most sensitive.

When I gave instructions to other people reviewing restaurants for the guides, I always quoted John because his advice could never be bettered. Two bits of it I remember in particular.

He warned us to be extremely careful to get every detail correct because otherwise the restaurant owners "would fall upon us like ravening wolves." I can't think of any phrase more likely to make a fledgling critic check his or her work and then check it again.

He also urged critics to be generous when tipping, whether the review was positive or not, so at least the waiter wouldn't be able to complain that The Sun was tight-fisted.

John was a great guy. Although we didn't stay in touch with each other as much as I wish we had, we did exchange Christmas cards to the end and played bridge occasionally. He was one of the few people nice enough to take on as a partner my husband -- who has a gunslinger mentality when it comes to cards -- thereby preserving our marriage. Plus John brought the best sandwiches when he came: delicious shavings of rare roast beef or Virginia ham on thin slices of buttered brown bread.

Sorry, that's the food critic in me coming out. Elizabeth Large Sun restaurant critic

Keep walking

John was both a colleague and a neighbor. When he lived in Bolton Hill, he would walk to work at a fast clip. At day's end John would march home with two other Sun scribes who lived in the neighborhood, John F. Kelly and Davison White. They never stopped moving.

When confronted with a red light, they would immediately shift course. Scooting up the sidewalks of Calvert or St. Paul, they would bounce across Read, Eager or Preston streets, ending up at the foot of Bolton Hill.

Once I tried walking home with John. I couldn't keep pace, with him. Few could. Rob Kasper Sun columnist

Gentleman, scholar

Besides serving as the newspaper's art critic and restaurant critic, John was an astute observer of Baltimore architecture. His 1983 book on Mount Vernon Place remains the definitive account of that historic precinct. With James Dilts, he was co-author of A Guide to Baltimore Architecture, an invaluable resource for newcomers and old-timers alike.

Though a classicist in many ways, he was never afraid to be a champion for new ventures that made sense, including the American Visionary Art Museum at the base of Federal Hill, the Baltimore City Life Museums, and any buildings by the modernists Warren Peterson and Charles Brickbauer.

Whether he was full of praise or less than amused, John Dorsey's articles were well-informed, well-reasoned and well-mannered. He commanded respect because he showed respect for his subjects.

His writing revealed exactly who he was: a gentleman and a scholar. Edward Gunts Sun architecture critic

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