Richard Dormer: The Laois footballer who became a US police commissioner

America at Large: Emigrant excelled in US but never forgot his roots or his sporting passions

The New York Times once dispatched a reporter out to Suffolk County on Long Island to interview Richard Dormer. America's newspaper of record was intrigued to find a 63-year-old police commissioner still togging out regularly for a competitive over-40s soccer team.

The subsequent article included quotes from team-mates and opponents, references to the silver-haired commish bellowing instructions “with a slight Irish lilt”, and Dormer himself comparing running one of the country’s largest police forces to the way he tried to patrol midfield.

“I police like I play soccer,” he said. “I am all over the field. I like to be involved in the action.”

The Times failed to mention his sporting pedigree was far more illustrious than sharing fields with middle-aged men trying to stave off heart attacks of a Sunday morning. Almost half a century before, Dormer was picked to play senior football for his native Laois. At 17. The true mark of a blue chip prospect.

A year later, he moved to New York where he wore the green and red of Mayo with distinction. At least until his cousin Sean Brennan started, of all things, a Kilkenny team, and demanded he switch allegiance. In an era when the constant tide of emigration ensured the standard of fare up in the Bronx was near enough inter-county, that outfit won three championships.

After a battle with cancer, Dormer died at his home in Northport, Long Island last month at the age of 79. He is survived by his wife Barbara, children, Kathleen, Bridget, John and Richard, and eight grandchildren.

If the obituaries in the local media here were predictably focused on a stellar career in law enforcement that culminated in him presiding over a force more than 3,000 strong and leading the Gilgo Beach serial killer investigation. They scarcely touched upon the half of his life that was steeped in the sporting passions of two countries.

When he was the most powerful police officer in the county (earning a salary well into six-figures), he could still be found every weekend coaching his children’s soccer teams or refereeing Long Island Junior Soccer League matches (official fee $50) all over the island.

“What a difference when you’re behind the whistle,” said Dormer. “When you finally attain that position and you have everybody criticising you, and looking at you, and waiting for you to make a mistake, the pressure is on. You have to make decisions that are unpopular but you have to call it the way you see it.”

Society’s ladder

He belonged to that redoubtable generation who left or were forced to leave de Valera's cloistered Ireland in the grim 1950s. Deprived of the chance to flourish in the land of "frugal comfort" and "comely maidens", so many carved out immense lives abroad that were, in their own way, minor epics.

Those fortunate enough to reach America landed in a meritocracy, a place rife with opportunity where their accents and ethnicity were peculiar assets. Most had no qualifications but possessed the work ethic of the economically desperate, the fierce ambition of the displaced, and a sliver of innate cuteness that often took them a long way.

“When I came to America at 18, even though I was a young lad and pretty green, I still had a tough background from growing up in Crettyard, dealing with adversity,” said Dormer of how his formative years in a former mining hamlet hard on the Kilkenny border prepared him for life in New York.

In a time before technology shrunk the world, his was a wave of emigrants who never knew if they’d see Ireland or their loved ones again. Contact with home was by air mail and an annual phone call at Christmas, work was whatever you could find to clamber onto society’s ladder.

His own first job was in the kitchen of a mental hospital. Plenty of those Irish used military service and the GI Bill to pay their way through college. Others, like Dormer, turned a stint in uniform, in his case in the infantry of the US Army, into a springboard to fulfil a childhood ambition to become a cop.

He finished 19th out of over 1000 applicants when he sat the exam for the Suffolk County Police Department. Not quite four decades later, the Gilgo Beach murders put Dormer in the international media spotlight.

A serial killer on the doorstep to New York city was bound to do that. During umpteen interviews with television and radio from around the world, he was as at ease as when stepping to the podium to teach as an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Suffolk County Community College.

Students there loved his classes because his canon of war stories stretched from learning the ropes as a naive beat cop to working with FBI profilers at Quantico to try to catch a serial killer.

It was in the teaching role that I came to know him in recent years. On Tuesday mornings, his Manchester United jacket would invariably appear in the window of my office door.

The conversation might begin as a lamentation about the parlous state of affairs at Old Trafford and end somewhere around O’Moore Park, having made a an obligatory detour to consider the dreadful menace of the handpass. A man a long time out of Ireland. Yet, still wonderfully reeking of it.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.