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Friends praise a beloved teacher, mentor and director on Tom Orr Day

Pat’s School of Dance students performed during to open the celebration of Tom Orr Day Saturday at the Historic Courthouse plaza. Pat’s School of Dance students performed during to open the celebration of Tom Orr Day Saturday at the Historic Courthouse plaza.

A crowd of more than 120 people gathered at the Historic Courthouse plaza Saturday to listen to former students, friends, a fellow faculty member, a renowned author and others praise Thomas E. “Tom” Orr as a mentor and teacher of hundreds, an inspiring and creative theater director and a keeper of the community’s history.

Braving a gusty wind that swept across the courtyard, the audience heard tales of Orr’s storied teaching career at Hendersonville High School, his resourcefulness in staging ambitious musical productions for the annual senior play and his devotion to preserving the history and culture of Hendersonville though his weekly newspaper column.
In remarks read by Steve Carlisle, Robert Morgan praised Orr as an exemplar of the local historian that has a genuine affection for his subject.
“For any community or region, the local historian is essential, for he or she is almost always a part of the community they write about,” said Morgan, the award-winning author of the Gap Creek series. “There is a special intimacy and understanding that only the resident antiquarian and historian can provide.”

“Once someone asked me if there was anyone in Hendersonville, past or present, that Tom did not know, or know about,” he said. “My answer was that if there was such a person I have not been able to find him.”
Morgan extolled the local color, nostalgia and affection for community found in Orr’s “Ridge Lines,” the weekly column that ran in the Times-News for more than 10 years.
“His writing is a window on a world many of us have forgotten, giving us a new appreciation of our own community and heritage,” Morgan said. “In Tom’s prose we can relish the smell of popcorn at the old Fox Theater, and recall the scent of warm cashews in white paper bags from the candy counter at Woolworth’s.”

In retirement ‘he continued to teach'

Seven other speakers made tributes to Orr. Gary Jones talked about Orr’s friendship with his brother, Chat Jones, and their mutual devotion to exhuming, preserving and highlighting local history, especially the history of Hendersonville’s Main Street. Judy Abrell praised his determination as the leader of the committee responsible for saving the Historic Courthouse, Ronnie Pepper recalled his creation of the Walk of Fame, Pat Shepherd remembered his staging of historical dramas and McCray Benson announced the upcoming collection of his columns, titled “Ridge Lines: Steps in Time.”
Orr’s niece, Ashley Orr Self, who is leading a campaign to name the HHS auditorium for her uncle, introduced family members who traveled from near and far for Tom Orr Day.
Kaye Youngblood, who was both a student and colleague of Orr’s, spoke of his skill and devotion as a classroom teacher and his inspiring direction of the senior play. Serious students eagerly looked forward to the first day in Mr. Orr’s senior English class almost as a “rite of passage.”
“When that day finally occurred for me and my classmates from the Class of 1980, we were not disappointed,” she said. “On the first day of class, in walks this tall, dark and handsome young man. The room was totally silent, and we all felt a bit awkward as he looked around the class at each face as if he was to choose one of us for the firing squad. But instead, he slowly and dramatically lifted up a book and began reading a poem.
“His delivery was intentional, and we were all soon mesmerized by the words. As he would weave in and out of the rows of students, he would occasionally stop and look a student in the eyes as he slowly read a line of the poem. I don’t think any of us will ever hear the last soliloquy from ‘Macbeth’ or the Lord’s Prayer in Olde English without thinking of Mr. Orr.”
The exhilarating experience of the school’s legendary senior play paid lifelong dividends beyond the theater stage. “It taught teamwork, work ethic, dedication and gave the students so much pride every class left HHS thinking their play was truly the best play ever performed on that stage,” she said.
Youngblood and every other speaker noted that Orr’s service went beyond his paid day job and endured until his death.
“To say Mr. Orr was a teacher at HHS, was accurate, but not nearly the whole picture,” she said. “When he retired from the Henderson County school system, he continued to teach. Not in the traditional classroom setting but instead he began to teach our entire community. … Through his plays, his newspaper columns, his work with the Education Foundation, the Historic Courthouse and the Walk of Fame, he found a new classroom, with new students and a new subject: our people, our community.”

‘He made me a better person’

David Drake, a student of Orr’s in the mid-sixties, credited his eighth-grade English teacher and theater director with important life lessons.
“He was a great teacher. I was a terrible student, and he let me know that several times,” Drake said. “He promised me that if I would just pay attention once in a while and shut my mouth — I was a bit of a wise-cracker — that he would get me through those five years and that by the time I was ready to graduate I would appreciate my life in high school, so I held him to his word.”
Drake recalled that under Orr’s inspiring leadership the Dramatics Club grew from a handful members to 225. In 1966, a Hollywood producer contacted Orr and told him he needed some high school age kids to audition for a part in the show “Lassie” that was to film in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Drake got the role of the “mountain boy” and was eagerly awaiting the day he would star in the popular Sunday night show.
“I had about 7 minutes of face time in that 22-minute show,” he said. “The night that it was showing, the town of Hendersonville shut down. Churches canceled their evening service. Everybody was in front of their black and white TV. And there I was, on the screen, but not for seven minutes.” After show merged several different stories into one episode, “my seven minutes got whittled down to 18, 19 seconds. My mother was livid.”
Drake himself was crushed and he let Mr. Orr know it.
The teacher responded: “It doesn’t matter. Look what you did. You had your 15 seconds of fame.”
“That is the biggest lesson Tom ever taught me,” Drake said. “Feel better about what you do. Never be embarrassed by doing something incredible. And that’s what experience was for me.”
Drake recalled that Orr, freshly graduated from UNC at Chapel Hill, had applied for a tour of duty in the newly formed Peace Corps. Before he heard whether he was accepted, he received a call from city schools Superintendent Hugh Randall offering him the job teaching freshman English at HHS.
“I don’t know if Tom Orr ever got a phone call” from the Peace Corps, Drake said. “I hope he did, and I hope had a chance to tell them, ‘Folks, I appreciate the opportunity. But the calling I got, the service that I need to make, has already been here the last three or four years. I’ve got a family of a hundred kids or 500 kids or a thousand kids or 22,000 kids.’
“Tom Orr was more than a teacher, more than a historian, more than a community actor. Virtually everybody talked about the same thing: He did so much for me. He made me a better person. He made me feel good about myself.”