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D'Orso Nearly Snags Pulitzer

It was the three years that Hayfield Secondary alumnus Mike D'Orso spent on the road finding himself after college that led to a lucrative career telling stories as an award-winning journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee.

D'Orso was on the road like beat generation author Jack Kerouac. He was working at a grocery store in Colorado when the truth dawned on him.

"I was training to be a writer, but I didn't realize it," D'Orso said. "I came back and did my thesis on Jack Kerouac. Nobody wrote about Kerouac seriously. I did a huge story for Sports Illustrated on Kerouac, he was a football star," D'Orso said, recalling a trip back to Kerouac's hometown, talking to his old friends who thought he only went off the deep end instead of becoming the icon of the beat generation.

"I actually got it published," D'Orso said.

That was just one of the journalistic feats D'Orso tackled in a career that featured stops at The Virginia Pilot and The Commonwealth Magazine and working for Jackie Onassis while she was an editor at Doubleday in 1988.

"She's the one that got me into book-writing," D'Orso said. "It's all about storytelling."

From his southeastern Virginia residence, D'Orso hammered out an average of one book a year and was nominated for Pulitzers for "Like Judgement Day," "Somerset Homecoming" and "Walking With the Wind."

The investigative work that went into "Somerset Homecoming" down in Florida was one of his high points. The book concerns an African American town in 1923 Florida that was the target of a white mob scene after a white woman claimed she was raped by a black man. D'Orso worked on it with one witness named "Dorothy," and they found 12 witnesses that were at least 80 years old. Faded memories and hidden truths came out in the end.

"She didn't want anyone to know that the father of her father was a white man. One of the themes of the book was the fallibility of memory," he said.

D'Orso's other works included New York Times best-seller "Body for Life," written with fitness expert Bill Phillips; "The Cost of Courage"; "For The Children," selected by the Library Journal as a Best Book of the Year; "Rise and Walk," about former New York Jet Dennis Byrd, who was paralyzed, the basis for a Fox Television motion picture and a finalist for the 1994 Gold Medallion Book Award; "Thin Is Just a Four Letter Word"; "Winning with Integrity"; and "In Praise of Public Life," with Joseph Lieberman. Two collections of D'Orso's magazine and newspaper stories have been published as well: "Pumping Granite" and "Fast Takes." D'Orso's latest book is "Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands," published in December 2002.

"I get into people and what makes them tick," D'Orso said. "When I go out and look at a story, I get the facts, but I also determine, 'What's the story here?'"

In getting the story, D'Orso has traveled to a village above the Arctic Circle, rural Portugal, Florida, the Galapagos Islands and the home of Dennis Byrd.

"I went out and lived with him," D'Orso said.

In February 2003, the Galapagos book was the topic of D'Orso's discussion at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was co-sponsored with the Charles Darwin Foundation in Falls Church.

"I thought he did a great talk," said Greg Mcgruder, the National Geographic director of lectures and communications. "It was well received. It was certainly in line with what we would do here."

TRAVELING, INVESTIGATING and answering all the questions are 80 percent of the job. The other 20 percent is sitting down at the keyboard. D'Orso's typical day in that stage follows a routine.

"I write for four hours in the morning," he said.

Then he takes a break, sometimes goes out to lunch. When he returns home, he prints out the story, fine-tunes and edits. When quitting for the day, he leaves off at a point of momentum like Hemmingway used to do, D'Orso said. That way, when he picks up the next day, he jumps right in and continues the momentum.

"The first half of the book is the toughest part. When I went out to do the Galapagos book, I didn't know where to start. I threw myself into it. You throw yourself into it and find out what's there," he said.

Influences in the writing world include John McPhee, Joan Gideon, Tracy Kidder and Jon Krakauer. An influential novel in his career was "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," he said.

RECENTLY, D'Orso united with Beth James, one of D'Orso's teachers at Hayfield in 1969. James is a Springfield resident and member of the Bailey's Crossroads Lions Club, where he gave a talk on Thursday, April 18.

"I found out through the librarian at West Springfield, who had heard him speak. As soon as she said it [his name], I knew who it was," she said.

D'Orso recalled his days at Hayfield where he graduated with the first graduating class of the school in 1971. At the time, he wrote for the school newsletter, "The Hayfield Heritage," and played on the basketball team. The team's record was 3-15 his first year. He covered sports for the newsletter.

"The only thing I cared about was doing the sports," he said.

The day after graduation in 1971, D'Orso's family moved away from their home in Hayfield Farms, and he never looked back. Later, when he looked into a 25-year reunion by calling the school, he wasn't successful contacting anyone from the class.

"Hayfield High School was my only life in Northern Virginia," he said.

D'Orso graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in philosophy in 1975 and a master’s in 1981 in English literature.

"That had nothing to do with being a writer," he said.

D'Orso is now working with Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on another book.