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Tom Dorsey of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods Passes Away at 86

Dorsey and his brother-in-law Tom Maxwell founded T&T in 1969 on the banks of a Pennsylvania spring creek.

Tom Dorsey of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods Passes Away at 86

In 2023 Dorsey—with encouragement and support from Orsmond—published the book "Searching for Telos: With a History of the Thomas & Thomas Rod Co." (Photo courtesy of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods)

Tom Dorsey passed away peacefully on February 14, 2024, in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 86 years old.

Dorsey and his brother-in-law Tom Maxwell founded the rod company Thomas & Thomas in 1969 in a Civil War-era farmhouse on the banks of a spring creek near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. At the time, Cumberland Valley was famous for its spring creek fishing, and locals like Charlie Fox and Vince Marinaro were among the top fly-fishing experts of the day. Soon, Marinaro, Ernest Schwiebert, and numerous other authorities were extolling the virtues of Thomas & Thomas bamboo rods.

Dorsey was born in Masury, Ohio—in “Coal Country”—during the great depression where his father earned recognition as a “speak-easy carpenter,” which is to say, he built cabinets and bookshelves with concealed panels and compartments to hide alcohol during prohibition. His father was a blue-collar craftsman and Dorsey started his working career as a laborer at the Coppperweld Steel Company in Warren, Ohio. He later became a member of the Hump Jones 7-piece rhythm and blues band where he played the upright bass, a passion he would pursue for most of his life. He joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1963 and began restoring old bamboo rods as a student at the University of Maryland pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. Soon after he graduated, he joined forces with Maxwell to create the Thomas & Thomas Rod Co.

A white-haired mustachioed man holding a fly rod and a stand-up bass on the banks of a river.
Dorsey was a member of the Hump Jones 7-piece rhythm and blues band where he played the upright bass, a passion he would pursue for most of his life. (Photo courtesy of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods)

A long waiting list for their rods soon developed, forcing the two Toms to increase production. So in 1974 they bought the historic Montague and Sewell-Dunton milling machines at an auction, purchased a large stockpile of Tonkin cane, and set up a new rod shop in Turners Falls, Massachusetts.

In 1976, Maxwell left Thomas & Thomas and went to work for the H.L. Leonard rod company. In 2001, the company moved a short distance across the Connecticut River to Greenfield, Massachusetts. Dorsey stayed at the helm until 2013 when current owner Neville Orsmond purchased the company.

Two men holding and looking down upon a fly rod.
Dorsey stayed at the helm until 2013 when current owner Neville Orsmond purchased the company. (Photo courtesy of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods)

Although the company started as a bamboo rod business, Dorsey was a pioneer with graphite in the mid-1970s. The first Thomas & Thomas graphite rods were branded as “G” followed by a number denoting length and line weight. The G8045 was an 8-foot graphite rod for 4 or 5-weight lines. The first graphite T&T rod with a name was the Special Dry Fly. Dorsey was also an early adopter of two-handed rods, and T&T introduced some of the first graphite Spey rods to the American market.

Thomas and Thomas continued to make bamboo rods and still make sought-after rods today. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan commissioned a pair of Thomas & Thomas bamboo rods as gifts for heads of state. One rod went to Prince Charles and Lady Diana on their wedding day, the other went to Malcolm Fraser, the prime minister of Australia.

Dorsey stayed involved in rod design in an advisory capacity at Thomas & Thomas right up until the time he died. He was involved with the design of the new Avantt II fly rod the company is unveiling in March 2024.

In 2023 Dorsey—with encouragement and support from Orsmond—published the book Searching for Telos: With a History of the Thomas & Thomas Rod Co.




The book is Dorsey’s personal history as a rod maker and a musician, along with a history of the company, observations on the sport of fly fishing, and his philosophy on craftsmanship and what makes some musical instruments, casks of wine, or fly rods more soulful and desirable than others.

Dorsey is survived by his wife, Dawn Dorsey; his three daughters, Nicole Bilzerian and her husband Kenny; Erika Olson and her husband Paul; Danika Dorsey and her partner Rafael; and his son, Joshua Dorsey and his wife Jaclyn. He has seven grandchildren, Dillon, Alex, Michael, Karissa, Lincoln, Lewis, and Elin, and three great-grandchildren, Maxim, Marie, and Cameron.

Two fly anglers standing in a river, one casting a perfect loop, below a covered bridge.
The first graphite T&T rod with a name was the Special Dry Fly. (Photo courtesy of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods)
Two men closely examining bamboo fly rod blanks.
In 1974, the two Toms bought the historic Montague and Sewell-Dunton milling machines at an auction, purchased a large stockpile of Tonkin cane, and set up a new rod shop in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods)

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