By Brandon Martin
Dr. Barry Dorsey wasn’t a native of Martinsville-Henry County, but as the saying goes, he got here as soon as he could.
Dorsey, who was the founding executive director of the New College Institute (NCI), died Jan. 4. He was 78.
Dr. Leanna Blevins, also a former executive director, was the first employee at NCI, and began there in 2004. Dorsey started in his position in January 2006.
“He and I worked, just the two of us for a while, and he was always really goal oriented,” Blevins said. “He very much believed in what we were doing to establish this new college. Every day, he made sure he did a little something to make sure that would happen.”
As a result of those ambitions and his quiet, reserved demeanor, Dorsey accomplished the unthinkable.
“The legislation to establish New College Institute passed in 2006 and it officially became a state agency on July 1, 2006. We were supposed to open our doors the following year,” Blevins said.
But Dorsey “insisted that we could start classes in 2006. As soon as it passed, he worked every single day so that we could open our doors and start with classes and we did that” in the fall of 2006, Blevins said. “That’s a pretty amazing feat.”
Part of the process of establishing the college was finding the space to house the institute. In his search, Dorsey met Dr. Mervyn King and his wife, Virginia King.
“He was adamant about it being in the uptown area,” Virginia King said. “We had recently purchased the Shumate Jessie building and we showed that to him. Fortunately, he was able to visualize how a historic building can be converted into classrooms and offices. From that point on, we worked with him for some other restorations and rehabilitations for the college. He became a friend along the way.”
Dorsey “was an extraordinary person, a great thinker, and a very thoughtful person,” said Dr. Angeline Godwin, president of Patrick Henry Community College. “He was really a people person, but he was also an intellectual. We served on some initiatives together and he was very good in the beginning to give me an orientation when I was new to the community which I thought was quite good. I will remember his love for learning. He dedicated his entire life to learning and teaching.”
He also is remembered for his ability to inspire.
“He loved graduation and he loved writing speeches, then giving those speeches to inspire and motivate degree holders,” Blevins said. “He really wanted the graduates to take their education seriously and (understand) the difference they could make in our community. He spent a lot of time crafting words to inspire them.”
A champion of the arts, Dorsey “worked tirelessly for what he believed in, and he believed the arts built communities,” said Heidi Pinkston, executive director of Piedmont Arts. “He supported the arts and art education, not through just Piedmont Arts but through NCI and Theaterworks. He brought organizations together and he fostered collaborations. You could say that he was the ultimate bridge builder.”
Pinkston said her relationship with Dorsey spanned about 10 years, with Dorsey serving on the Board of Directors at Piedmont Arts on three separate occasions, including his current board seat.
“He was also the recipient of the 2020 Clyde Hooker Award,” Pinkston said, and added Dorsey volunteered “countless hours ensuring that Piedmont Arts and other organizations had the financial and community support necessary to carry out their mission.”
His fundraising prowess was legendary, according to Pinkston.
“He was fearless in asking people for donations and contributions for what he believed in, and he always encouraged me to do the same. Be fearless and don’t be afraid to ask for what you need,” she said.
That also was an attribute that Virginia King admired, first witnessed during her time on the Board of Directors of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, where Dorsey served two terms.
“One thing that was very helpful for the historical society was him helping us get sponsors,” she said. “He said he enjoyed asking people for money, which was the opposite of me, but we were glad to have someone on the board willing to do that.”
Dorsey’s knack for fundraising also was targeted to helping those most in need.
“I had the opportunity of working with him on the Board of Directors for the United Way,” said Dale Wagoner, deputy county administrator. “Everything he did, he did it with passion and with concern for the community. That’s probably the most commendable part, his dedication and love for this community. He went above and beyond to help our community grow. He will be missed.”
“We are grateful for Barry Dorsey’s tireless efforts as NCI’s founding executive director to support more people from diverse backgrounds to attend and succeed in college,” said Karen Jackson, NCI’s interim executive director. “We are committed to continuing his legacy and ensuring that NCI serves as Virginia’s premiere training and education hub for workforce training, certification, and degree programs.”
State Sen. William M. (Bill) Stanley, who serves as NCI’s board chairman, said Dorsey’s “steadfast commitment to create new educational opportunities strengthened our community and helped break the cycle of poverty in Southern Virginia. We are thankful for Mr. Dorsey’s critical contribution to put NCI on the path for success.”
Beyond his legacy in education, community organizing, and volunteering, Dorsey also will be remembered for his personality.
“One thing that always stood out to me, and I say this with all due respect, he always had a little twinkle in his eye,” Henry County Administrator Tim Hall said. “He could tell a joke, but he also understood the difference in when it was time for work and when to be personable. A lot of folks don’t have that. They are all business, or they are all fun. He was good at both and he always had a way to put people at ease with a smile or one liner.”
Dorsey’s mark on Martinsville-Henry County will never be forgotten.
“He wasn’t originally one of ours, but he became immersed in the community and worked every day to make things better than he found them,” Hallsaid, and added the two initially met after Dorsey moved to the area from Shelby, N.C.
“We’re a small community and a lot of folks wear different hats. The teamwork that is required, and that is so good here, always involved education, both secondary education and higher education,” Hall said. “When Dr. Dorsey came, we were all excited about NCI. He seemed exactly what we needed at the time and I think in retrospect, he absolutely was.”