February 6, 1996
By Earl Swift
The Virginian-Pilot

IN 15 YEARS as a journalist, Mike D'Orso has captured the quiet faith of nuns toiling to build a mountaintop convent. A teenage girl's resolve to race stock cars. A Marine sniper killing with care on a jungle floor.

He has taken his readers on a young Eskimo's journey from Arctic village to college hoops, and he has seated them on a minor-league baseball team's jouncing red-eye between no-name burgs.

And along the way, he has shown that behind most personal triumphs there lurks a shadow - regret or loss, disappointment, some twinge of the bittersweet.

That shadow lies at the heart of D'Orso's seventh book, "Like Judgment Day: The Ruin and Redemption of a Town Called Rosewood,'' which appears in bookstores today.

The 42-year-old Virginian-Pilot staff writer learned of Florida's 1923 Rosewood massacre the way much of America did - in news stories that chronicled the Florida Legislature's passage, 71 years later, of a compensation bill for the incident's victims.

But his research produced a story not just about the mass-scale lynching that destroyed the town, nor the state's effort to redress the crime. It went beyond that, to the victory's sad, all-too-human aftermath.

"There's what happened in 1923, and that's almost a book in itself,'' D'Orso said. "But that's just a backdrop for the rest of what happens, the touchstone for all of the characters.

"There's no question that the men who attacked Rosewood and the attack itself were heinous and evil. But from that point forward, everybody in the story has shades to their character, their motivations and their actions.''

Dispatched to Florida by his editor and agent in 1994, D'Orso joined squadrons of reporters and movie makers circling the Rosewood story.

"The only sense of urgency I felt was to get to those survivors as quickly as I could,'' he said last week. "These were nine very elderly people, very frail. One had died just a couple of months before.''

A host of newspapers and magazines later published histories of the attack. Forgotten by most of America, a secret as well kept by Rosewood's victims as by the white marauders who destroyed their homes, the tale was shocking.

That's where D'Orso's work began.

"There were so many layers to this,'' he said. "The next story is how these people were reconnected. Next, there's their legal journey, as they do something unprecedented in American history - the whole idea of compensation and what came from that.

"And the final story is the legislative journey, behind the scenes.''

The result is a book that the Boston Globe on Sunday called "a true story whose meaning extends far beyond the perimeters of its own time and place,'' and that Publisher's Weekly calls "a significant contribution to American history.''

"He manages to keep us amazed at every step in a process that might have stumbled at any one of its numerous hurdles,'' waxed The Washington Post. "Would that other such gifted writers tackle the thorny history of racial and sexual minorities and the justice system.''

Such accolades have followed D'Orso since the publication of his first book, "Somerset Homecoming,'' in 1988. That book, about a descendant of slaves, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and named "Book of the Year'' by the Virginia College Bookstores Association.

"His next two - "The Cost of Courage,'' a collaboration with former Alabama Congressman Carl Elliott, and "For the Children,'' written in partnership with Philadelphia inner-city school principal Madeline Cartwright - attracted publishing honors, as well.

In 1993, he wrote "Rise and Walk'' with once-paralyzed New York Jets lineman Dennis Byrd. The story was a finalist for the 1994 Gold Medallion Book Award and was later made into a TV movie - and D'Orso wrote it in seven weeks, the fastest turnaround in HarperCollins' 180-year history.

His past work did him service as he researched Rosewood: Arnett Doctor, the protagonist of "Like Judgment Day,'' decided to talk to D'Orso after reading "Somerset Homecoming,'' and he encouraged his family to do the same.

They ran from this place with just their skin 70 years ago,'' D'Orso said. "These people had lived through a nightmare and, over the years, had put it to bed. And to drag it all up again was a big decision.''

The son of a Navy submariner, D'Orso was born in Portsmouth and spent his childhood bouncing through the United States and Europe. He arrived in Hampton Roads as a philosophy student at the College of William and Mary and, save for a few years spent vagabonding after his 1975 graduation, has lived here since.

While teaching school in 1978, he contributed a few tentative pieces to the Virginia Beach Sun. Soon he was writing for now-defunct Commonwealth magazine. In 1984 he landed a features job at The Pilot.

Since then, D'Orso's newspaper work has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer and has attracted a slew of national, state and company writing awards. In his spare time he became a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated and has seen his work appear in Reader's Digest and other national magazines.

D'Orso has been on leave from The Pilot since 1993. His days are crowded with preparations for his next writing project, billiards, duckpin bowling and, most substantially, with daughter Jamie, 11.