He told her he’d fudged a few things at his travel office for the stranger — buying him an extra ticket and changing his return dates on an existing one. And he was nervous it could cost him his job.
Elaine Dorsey shook her head and let it go. He was always doing something nice for others. And she didn’t think he’d get fired for it.
Jimmy Dorsey didn’t get fired, but he did change the course of an entire family’s life — and maybe even an entire field of science — thanks to his generosity that day.
The stranger was Mahmoud Ghannoum, a renowned scientist who is now known as the world’s leading microbiome researcher. (Whenever you read about gut bacteria or probiotics? That’s Ghannoum’s work.)
Ghannoum was in Washington for a scientific conference in 1990, and he was in trouble.
His country, Kuwait, had just been invaded by Saddam Hussein. His city was in scorched-earth ruin, and his young family was squatting in a dorm room in England while he tried to find work and a way to get them all to the United States.
But the people who could help him find work wouldn’t be in the District until the next weekend. He had neither the money to stay there, nor the means to change his plane ticket.
So he ducked into a travel agency and told his story.
The travel agent in charge that day listened to this story from this Muslim man with a mustache, a thick accent and a brown suit.
And he didn’t turn him away.
He found a way for Ghannoum to be in D.C. the following weekend, with some keyboard clicks and a new plane ticket. And then he opened his wallet and gave him $80 cash. “So you have some spending money,” he told him.
Ghannoum interviewed like a boss and got two job offers.
He told the story about America’s open arms for 30 years as he wrote papers, made discoveries and became a force in American science.
But he also never got to thank the man. The travel agency began laying off employees and closed for good not long after Ghannoum settled in America, during the 1991 recession.
So last month, Ghannoum and his son posted something on Facebook, hoping to find their mystery man with little to go on: an African American travel agent in downtown D.C.
I wrote a story about the search.
Tips came in and I made lots of calls, checking in with Ghannoum and striking out each time.
Then I heard from Christine Lehnhoff.
“Ms Dvorak, I worked as a travel agent in D.C. during that time. My boss, Jimmy Dorsey, was a black man, and our office was near Farragut Square,” she wrote, after reading the story. She remembered he was a firefighter.
So I found a James Dorsey who worked at the Leesburg Volunteer Fire Company and was a veteran of the Vietnam War.
I sent Ghannoum the photo of 2019 Dorsey. But he wasn’t so sure it was his angel. Squinting, he said “maybe 30 years ago. But I’m not so sure.”
And I worried we would never know.
Dorsey died in February at 69, just seven months before Ghannoum, who is also 69, began his search.
I left a message for his widow, Elaine. And so did Ghannoum’s son, Afif Ghannoum.
She remembered that night her husband came home short of cash with some crazy story about a guy who needed help.
“It wasn’t out of the norm for him to do something like this,” she told me, after she connected all the dots, talked with Afif and was convinced her husband was Ghannoum’s good Samaritan.
But there was still the matter of the photos. Ghannoum didn’t recognize the salt-and-pepper-bearded Dorsey of 2019, the man who had been fighting liver and lung cancer for a decade. They were both 39 on that travel agency day.
So Elaine sent the family older pictures of Dorsey, young and fit in Vietnam, with his postwar Afro and white suit in the 1970s, with his close-cropped hair and coach clothes in the 1990s.
“Oh my God, it’s him,” Ghannoum said. “It’s him, 100 percent. I’ll never forget him.”
The Dorseys and the Ghannoums have been on the phone all week, planning to meet next month. They each told me they have a surprise for the other. (I’ll stay mum on that for now, but we’ll be back with details when they meet.)
Yes, it’s bittersweet that the men will never get to shake hands or hug, that a man-to-man thank you will never happen.
But Elaine said she’s satisfied that the story will live on, that her sweet husband’s impulsive act of kindness produced good in the world.
And that it may inspire others to be kind.
We all thank you, Jimmy Dorsey.
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