Thomas Dortch, Atlanta civic leader, dead at 72

Former CEO of 100 Black Men blazed path in political, business circles.
Thomas Dortch Jr., former chairman of Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, talking about the hospital's financial situation in this 2011 file photo.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Thomas Dortch Jr., former chairman of Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, talking about the hospital's financial situation in this 2011 file photo.

Last November, in one of his last public appearances in the well of Atlanta’s City Hall, where the council was honoring him, Thomas W. Dortch Jr. talked about the promise the city had when he moved here more than 50 years ago.

“It was part of a renaissance,” Dortch said, regaling the audience with stories of Maynard Jackson’s historic run as the city’s first Black mayor.

But Dortch also took the time to talk about his health, recalling that 35 years ago, he beat a devastating form of cancer that had attacked his small intestine. On that morning in the well, he officially announced that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond (R) talks with Thomas Dortch Jr. (L) and his wife Zola Thurmond (C) before delivering his State of the County address at a  luncheon at the Thalia N. Carlos Hellenic Community Center in Atlanta on Thursday, March 30, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

icon to expand image

“Fortunately, I am in a great city, that has some of the greatest doctors and some of the best health facilities,” Dortch said. “I am gonna beat this one too. But until the day that God calls me, I am gonna work hard. Every day I get up, I empty my life for the betterment of everybody.”

Dortch, the influential Atlanta businessman and civic leader who rose to become chairman of 100 Black Men of America, died Wednesday. He was 72.

“Long before we called it diversity, equity and inclusion, Tommy was hard at work in that space,” said Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. “In matters of equity, not too much happened here that Tommy wasn’t involved in. Tommy was a connector and a facilitator. He knew how to get the right people together to make something good happen for Atlanta.”

Dortch was born on April 12, 1950 in Toccoa, Georgia to Lizzie Dortch and Thomas W. Dortch Sr.

After graduating from Whitman Street High School in 1968, Dortch attended Fort Valley State University and graduated with a B.A. in sociology in 1972. He served as student body president and once registered over 96% of the campus to vote.

In 1974, he became the associate director of the Georgia Democratic Party. It was then that he developed his interest in helping and representing small businesses, minorities and other marginalized communities.

In 1978, Dortch began working as an administrative aide for U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and eventually became his state director and chief administrator, becoming the first African American to have that role for any U.S. senator.

“Tommy Dortch was a trusted friend and an outstanding human being. From his leadership as a successful entrepreneur and a champion of small business to mentoring hundreds of young people, Tommy was a role model to everyone who knew him or followed his outstanding career,” Nunn said. “His contributions to Georgia and our nation will not be forgotten.”

In a 1999 file photo, Thomas Dortch talks to 100 Black Men of American intern Gabriel Miller outside of the Auburn Avenue office.(NICK ARROYO/AJC STAFF)

Credit: AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: AJC

In 1986, while earning a master’s degree in criminal justice from Atlanta University, he joined the 100 Black Men of America. As chairman, Dortch raised nearly $100 million for the organization over 20 years. The organization’s headquarters, on Auburn Avenue, bears his name.

Aside from 100 Black Men, Dortch’s work in the community has been extensive. He worked with the Atlanta Business League, was an advocate for the Atlanta Public Schools and was the founder of the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame.

He later became CEO of the consulting firm TWD, Inc. and Atlanta Transportation Systems, Inc., a Fulton County paratransit company.

“He meant a tremendous amount to America, not just Atlanta,” said Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond. ”This is the falling of a redwood tree, because his impact on the public and private sectors was so great. He never gave up on investing in children.”

Last week, Rep. Nikema Williams recognized Dortch on the U.S. House floor and introduced legislation to award Dortch a Congressional Gold Medal “for his leadership and contributions to this country.”

Bond, whose families’ ties date back more than half a century, said after beating cancer three decades ago, Dortch attacked life with full steam.

“He is a good example of what it means to maximize your potential and time on earth,” Bond said. “He got a second chance and he used every moment of it.”

Follow ajc.com for more information on Dortch’s passing.