Richard Ward Dortch, lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi, died peacefully on September 18, 2019 following a brief illness. Because of his tall stature and playful nature, younger generations called him “Big Richard,” and even younger ones shortened the nickname to simply “Big.” He was 83.
Richard loved language, and used his mastery of it to persuade and influence, to record with accuracy, and perhaps most notably, to express his wit and amused observations of the world around him.
From shortly after his birth on April 4, 1936, in the Jackson Infirmary, to his death, Richard charmed friends and strangers with a clever, disarming humor. He found delight and amusement in life’s everyday moments—a gift he used to ease many a tense situation and bring a smile to many a weary friend.
Richard grew up in the Belhaven neighborhood, where he fished in Belhaven Lake, rode his Whizzer scooter to Bailey Junior High, and learned photography from his father, shooting on a Speed Graphic press camera. Throughout his life, he wielded a camera with artistry, capturing underwater scenes on scuba-diving trips, and his children and grandchildren in unguarded moments of play.
After graduating from Central High School in 1954, he attended Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). Even as a young man, Richard guided his life with principles of integrity and honesty. He was proud to serve in 1958 as president of the Honor Council at Southwestern, the student board with jurisdiction over the college’s honor system.
Richard earned his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1961 and returned to Mississippi to join Brunini, Everett, Grantham, and Quinn (now the Brunini law firm). He spent his career there, developing expertise in real estate law. He served as president of the Real Property Section of the Mississippi Bar Association and has been a member of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers since 1983. In the 1990s, he was listed in “Best Lawyers in America.”
For his 40 working years, he embodied the belief that law is more a profession than a business, and lawyers serve both their clients and the greater good. He held that public education represented one of society’s greatest resources for improving the lives of children and bettering communities. As general counsel for the Jackson Public Schools in the 1960s, he worked tirelessly to advance integration of public education. He later used his real estate expertise to help the school district maximize the value of the 16th-section lands designated for the support public education.
Richard engaged with several organizations that expressed his civic values. He was president of the Metropolitan YMCA in 1978, and counseled the organization over many years. He also served on the board of directors of the Mississippi Craftsman’s Guild. For 10 years beginning in 2006, he drove every week for The Gleaners, enjoying his “run” to grocery stores and bakeries, and especially the company of his regular and stand-in gleaning partners.
Richard was a member of Fondren Presbyterian Church, serving in many leadership roles over the decades, and finding great joy playing in the hand-bell choir.
He is survived by Joyce Nall Dortch, his wife of 57 years; daughter Shannon Dortch of Ithaca, New York, son Richard Dortch of Jackson, and grandchildren Peyton and Adelaide Tracey. Other family members include his brother Caleb Dortch of Atlanta, and many cousins, nieces, and nephews. Richard was predeceased by his sister Judith Senter of San Antonio, Texas.
A service celebrating Richard’s life will take place Friday, September 20 at 2 p.m. at Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson, with a reception and visitation immediately following. The family will also receive visitors on Thursday, September 19, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Fondren Church.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a memorial gift to The Gleaners or to Fondren Presbyterian Church, in support of music and education ministries.
Sebrell Funeral Home is in charge of handling the arrangements.