If Mary Alice Dorsett could have just five minutes with the late Martin Luther King Jr., she knows just what she would say:
"Dr. King, we are so proud of you. You laid the foundation, and we are indebted to you," she says. "But Lord, I know the work isn't done. We are not giving up."
Next month, Dorsett turns 86. She's certainly earned the right to step down and let others be a mentor and activist, as she has been for 60 years in this community. But Dorsett has no intentions of doing any such thing.
"Why, I've just begun," she says with a wink.
On Monday, Dorsett was honored with the Robert W. Saunders Award at the annual Hillsborough County Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service, now in its 26th year. Some 200 people attended the 2 1/2-hour event at Mount Calvary Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tampa for prayers and music by local choirs. Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy joined in with remarks on peace and social action.
But clearly, the highlight was the chance to honor a woman who has dedicated her life to service and typically ends her conversations with an "I love you!" and a hug.
"I wish all of you could see my heart right now," a beaming Dorsett told the audience. The award is named for one of her heroes, longtime Florida civil rights activist Robert Saunders, who died in 2003.
A native of Dade City, Dorsett attended Paine College in Augusta, Ga., and the Bowes' School, a national training and professional school for women and girls in Washington, D.C. She moved here in 1950 and became the first women to establish a bail bonds and income tax business in Hillsborough County.
Her trailblazing work as a female business owner was unparalleled. She did it in an era when women had few opportunities – and even less so for minorities. While running her companies, she also raised two children and delved into community service. In 1962, she founded Faith Mission to provide shelter, food, clothing and employment for the needy.
Through it all, Dorsett never stopped believing in King's dream, that people of all faiths and races could work together for the common good. She devoted herself to civil rights, and wrote a book called "Wings," which deals with solutions to problems.
"I like to call her Dr. Dorsett, because she really knows how to fix things," says Julia Jackson, a Tampa photographer. "Growing up, I used to say that I wanted to be just like her. She was a real inspiration to me. She still is."
Jackson regards Dorsett as one of Tampa's treasured icons. One of Dorsett's best gifts, she says, is her ability to connect with young people.
"When she starts talking, we're all at the edge of our seats, because you never know what's going to come out of her mouth," Jackson says. "What you do know is that it will be something worthwhile. She's got the wisdom and experience to lead us to the future."
Dorsett believes she will be around for a long time to come.
"I don't even go to the doctor," she says. "I feel real good. So as long as I'm blessed with that, I will keep on working to make Dr. King's dream a reality."