Mitch Dorson was my friend. Judging by the amazing turnout at his memorial service the other night, that doesn't make me all that special, numerically speaking, but I sure felt special when I was around him. He was an incredible person and a Tucson treasure.
Mr. Dorson died suddenly a couple of weeks ago, and it left a gaping hole in the community. (As a longtime coach, I never address—or refer to—teachers or parents by their first names. In all the time I knew him, I never once called him "Mitch.")
He was born in New York City, but grew up in Tucson. His family ran Dorson's Furniture, a local fixture for nearly a half-century before it closed in 2000. He graduated from Tucson High School, where he had been a yell leader, complete with an Archie Andrews-style megaphone. He got a degree in journalism from the University of Arizona, did graduate work at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and then worked for Common Cause in Washington, D.C., before coming back to Tucson to stay.
I was an admirer of Mr. Dorson before I ever met him. While he was teaching history at Catalina Foothills High School, he became embroiled in an ugly controversy. A kid was up for a scholarship from the Flinn Foundation. This is a mega-scholarship that pays for everything as long as the recipient attends one of Arizona's universities; it even pays for the kid to travel abroad during the summer. It's a feather in the cap of any school or district to have a Flinn scholarship winner.
Unfortunately, the kid was in Mr. Dorson's history class, and Dorson was certain that the kid had cheated. He felt that the Flinn Foundation people should know, but the school district disagreed. Dorson went to the media, and then some bureaucrat in the superintendent's office reported Dorson to the state Department of Education for "unprofessional conduct."
Dorson resigned, and Catalina Foothills' enormous loss was Green Fields' gain. The kids universally raved about him, even though he was hard on them and their respective grade-point averages. He set extremely high classroom standards, even for Green Fields, which is one of the toughest academic schools in the state. It became common knowledge that a B in Mr. Dorson's class was like an A-plus anywhere else.
His interactive style was perfect for Green Fields, where there are usually only eight or nine kids in each classroom. He would hold passionate debates and have the kids stage mock Senate hearings on various issues.
He and I hit it off immediately. We bonded over books, sports and politics. His favorite political leader had been Bobby Kennedy, and when I told him that as a teenage "precinct worker," I had been at the Ambassador Hotel the night Kennedy was shot, he got emotional.
Over the years, I gave him lots of books, and he read them all. He even used a part of my favorite book, Richard Rhodes' Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in his class. I spoke to him just a couple of days before he died. I had just gotten The Passage of Power, the latest in the multivolume biography of LBJ. He said that he was going to get it, and that after we both had read it, we could compare notes.
He would always show up at my girls' team's basketball games, often with his megaphone. He'd loudly sing the national anthem (way off key) and then root for the kids. He'd even travel to our games in St. David and Benson. He'd also come to practice sometimes and just shoot free throws at a side basket.
Whenever I'd buy my kids T-shirts for winning a summer league or, like this past season, going undefeated in regular-season games, I'd always get one for Mr. Dorson. He'd wear them to school and always wore them with pride. I've been thinking of having my leading scorer, Olivia (who is an amazing artist), paint a picture of Mr. Dorson on the wall behind the top of the bleachers where he would always sit. That way, he'll be with us in the gym forever.
When I attended the memorial in his honor at the Jewish Community Center, I was stunned. The huge auditorium filled up quickly, and people just kept on coming. They had to open an adjoining room, and there was still an overflow, standing-room-only crowd.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild told me that when he was in the second-grade, Mr. Dorson was his religion-class teacher. "Mitch was always so engaged, so enthusiastic. And he always knew his stuff," the mayor said.
Mr. Dorson's integrity, passion and willingness to go out on a limb for what he knew was right was (and should remain) an inspiration to us all. One of the few things I've done consistently right in my life is tell people how important they are to me before they're gone. I'm pretty sure he knew, but it's still not enough.
I miss him a lot. And for the rest of my life, when I go to buy a book, I'm going to wonder whether Mr. Dorson would have liked it.