We quietly lost the dean of Vineyard builders when Donald DeSorcy died recently. I knew “The Donald” well (even though he never called me by my first name; it was always Rappaport or Doc, after my father). His father, master builder Leo DeSorcy, built my parents’ house in Oak Bluffs where I spent my childhood.
Donald was an outwardly tough man, but he had a warm heart and the best design and construction skills the Island had to offer. A native, he was born on March 9, 1929 to Leo and Florinda DeSorcy of Vineyard Haven. Donald was valedictorian of his class at the Tisbury High School, received a degree in mechanical engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology and later a master’s degree in construction engineering from MIT.
Donald worked for Texaco designing facilities and factories before entering the Korean War. After receiving his degree from MIT, he married his wife Rosemarie and moved back to the Vineyard to work with his father in DeSorcy Contracting.
There are many Donald stories. I would like to share a few.
Approximately 30 years ago, a friend of mine asked me to recommend the best builder on the Vineyard and I recommended Donald. After viewing his work, my friend and his architect came to the same conclusion. We set up a meeting with Donald to work out a contract. Donald simply said, “I don’t do contracts. You are just going to have to trust me.” After a closed-door meeting, my friend, an experienced businessman, shook Donald’s hand and said, “Okay, I’ve never done business this way before, but I trust you. Build me a house.” Donald told him the house would be done the following November.
Sometime during the spring, my friend came to inspect the house and we had another meeting with Donald. My friend said to Donald: “I’ll pay you an extra $50,000 if the house can be ready by July 1.” Donald sat there for the longest time, didn’t say anything, thought about it, and then just said, “Nope.” There was no negotiation, no counter offer. Nothing. Just, “Nope.” My friend said he had never seen anybody take such a blunt, unyielding position without trying to negotiate something else. But that is the way Donald was. Blunt, straightforward and honest.
On another occasion, Donald was asked to do a major renovation of a house in West Tisbury. When he walked in to meet the potential customers, he was asked to take off his shoes before he could enter the house. Donald looked around and said: “This job isn’t going to work out.” And he turned around and left.
Donald was owner of significant property on the Vineyard Haven waterfront, which you will note by seeing the large letters on the harbor side of a building saying DeSorcy. A while back, a Hollywood studio wanted to rent one of Donald’s properties to film a major movie. They couldn’t get Donald to respond. He was then approached by someone he knew, who the studio had put up to the task, to ask whether he would rent the property for the movie, and if so, for how much. Donald responded: “No way, no how am I going to rent my property to Hollywood movie types.”
Thanks to Donald, there are numerous beautiful DeSorcy buildings, including my family’s home, which have stood the test of time. His own waterfront buildings and personal landholdings, including a farm, have a simple, Vineyard style. By their simplicity, these buildings continue to enhance the Vineyard. We lost a great one when The Donald died.
Ronald H. Rappaport is an Edgartown attorney. He lives in Chilmark.