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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Charles Dorkey III

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-15

Summers in Mississippi as a teenager prepared Philadelphia-born Charles Dorkey III for the clangor and calumny of New York.

"In those days, there was two of everything - separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites, separate benches in the parks, separate sections in public buses," Mr. Dorkey, chairman of the Hudson River Park trust, said. "My mother Peggy came from Mississippi, which was why I went down there during summers. It was upsetting to learn as a kid that the world would be unjustly divided that way. I know that there are always winners and losers in life - but that doesn't mean that those who supposedly 'lose' aren't worthy of respect."

By the time Mr. Dorkey graduated from Dartmouth College and went on to acquire a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania, the world - or America, at least - had changed considerably. Racial segregation became illegal, even if racial tolerance was slow to be accepted in some communities. In New York, traditionally an ethnic and racial melting pot, Mr. Dorkey flourished.

"At least in part that was because of what I'd learned early in life - the need to listen to all kinds of people, the need to be tolerant of people, however much they disagreed with you, or even abused you," Mr. Dorkey said.

Those lessons proved invaluable as he climbed the hierarchy of Sullivan & Cromwell, one of New York's largest and most prestigious law firms. And they have proved equally invaluable in his current position as U.S. head of Canada's premier law firm, Torys, where he's often a player in the contentious world of high-power litigation.

Mr. Dorkey, an affable, youthful looking man in his 50's who everyone calls "Trip," straddles New York's private and public sectors. He has represented leading American and foreign corporations in major cases involving securities, reinsurance, construction, real estate, employment, and a broad range of commercial and other business disputes, Many of these disputes rose out of a high-finance activity that New York is well known for - mergers and acquisitions, something that only a handful of Manhattan's 60,000 lawyers are highly skilled at.

"I get a kick out of going to court every time," Mr. Dorkey said. "I'm not afraid of confrontation. This may sound idealistic, but I believe that as a lawyer you're doing something very important for society. The great thing about law is that it's principles-based."

He then quoted from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," in which the character of Polonius prepares his son Laertes for travel abroad with this advice: "To thine own self be true."

"Polonius could well be speaking to the contemporary legal community," Mr. Dorkey said.

He has also gained prominence in New York's public life. As a life-long Republican in a predominantly Democratic city, Mr. Dorkey is intimately knowledgeable about disputatiousness. He characterizes himself as a non-ideologue, and is well regarded across the political spectrum.

"This is also where the lessons I learned in the South have helped," Mr. Dorkey said. "The South was a different culture. I learned to relate to people in all communities - which is perhaps why I can also relate to New Yorkers in different parts of the city. I subscribe to what a colleague once said, 'A bird needs both wings to fly - the right and the left.' I have no problems getting along with Democrats."

As a trustee of the New-York Historical Society, he's been able to familiarize himself with the annals of a city that was founded in 1624; his active role in the Society complements his addiction to history books. As chairman of the Hudson River Park Trust, he's in a position to shape the city's future.

"I've been blessed with a lot of stamina, and a high energy level," Mr. Dorkey said. "Those factors are very useful, especially if you have a passion for the city."

His passion is focused to constructing the five-mile-long park, which will extend from Battery Park in the south to West 59th Street when it's completed. The project's cost is $500 million, with the state and the city each having committed $150 million, and the federal government has also contributed some money. Mr. Dorkey said that the balance of the funds will come from a several sources, including lease revenue and private fund-raising.

Parts of the park - which will feature a granite esplanade lining its entire length - have already been opened to the public. When Mr. Dorkey talks about the project, he tends to use words like "special" and "unique."

"It's possible to be a conservationist, to care for environmental issues, with being strident or radical about them," Mr. Dorkey said.

His stewardship of the project echoes his personal belief that the role of government should be to improve the quality of people's lives - and not try to changes their lives. It is a belief which he also brings to another public post, a directorship of the Empire State Development Corporation, headed by Charles Gargano. The corporation supports capital projects, and has been entrusted by Governor Pataki with leading the drive to enhance downtown Manhattan.

"It's very important for everyday citizens to get involved in public issues," Mr. Dorkey said. "Good citizenship means participation in issues that matter."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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