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Tom Orr, leader of theater and lover of local history, dies at age 81

Thomas E. "Tom" Orr, whose abiding love for his hometown and passion for theater and local history led him to highlight and celebrate the heartbeat of Hendersonville for five decades, died Sunday at Pardee Memorial Hospital after several weeks of failing health, friends said.


The longtime theater and English teacher at Hendersonville High School, Orr directed the senior play at HHS for many years, served on the Henderson County School Board and was a founder of both the Henderson County Education Hall of Fame and the Henderson County Walk of Fame.

Born Feb. 6, 1939, Orr earned a degree in English education from UNC at Chapel Hill in 1961 and took a job at HHS soon after.

He was inducted into the Education Hall of Fame himself in 2006, when he was honored for his 34 years of teaching and service as president of the Educational Theater Association, president of the Southeastern Theater Conference and NC Theater Association and active membership in the International Thespian Society.

Orr was modest when he was singled out for awards. He laughed when he got a call from the director of the N.C. Apple Festival notifying him that he had been named grand marshal of the 2019 King Apple Parade.

“That’s the one thing I never dreamt of doing, riding at the head of a parade,” he said with a chuckle. “This will be real experience for me but I am honored. When David Nicholson (the festival director) called, I started laughing and I had to quit laughing and I had to apologize.”

“I grew up in Henderson County,” he told the Hendersonville Lightning. “I’ve gone to many many parades. I’ll be there for this one I hope.”

He said he hoped the honor would connect Henderson County's most famous crop with a profession that he always sought to lift up.

“As a former teacher I appreciate (the tradition of) an apple for the teacher,” he said. “Teachers have been a major force in Henderson County. Our teachers deserve a lot of recognition and praise and I would like to accept the grand marshal role as a way of honoring teachers.”

I attempt to tell the story of Hendersonville and Henderson County through drama. I also write a column for the Hendersonville Times-News----"Ridge Lines" printed each Sunday. Quality education for all students is basic to my participation and motivation .....presentations...preservation of local history....

In 2016, Orr wrote and directed a play devoted to his hometown's history.e

"Through vignettes, Orr pulled the audience from the late 1800s through the 1960s. As Orr said in an interview before the show's premiere, so many local history portrayals stop before the Fifties and Sixties. Because those decades are in the living memory of many in the audience, the second act provokes no small amount of head nodding and appreciative laughter," the Lightning said in a review at the time.

From the 1800s to the Teen Canteen era, we see scenes of Columbus Pace, the long serving clerk of court, the acts of Christmas charity of Claudia Holt Oates (1872-1965), dances at the old Terrace Hotel, the old Town Hall and Opera House, the Queen, the Rex and Carolina theatres, Baker-Barber Studios (with a north-facing skylight for better light), Brock's Drive-In, Freeman's Newsstand and more.

Former students and many others who knew Orr left tributes on Facebook.

“I think all of us who attended HHS were blessed to have so many educators that touch our lives so positively,” John Strickland said. “Tom Orr, though, had a such a powerful and lasting effect on so many students. I still remember ‘Beowulf’ simply because he came up with the brilliant idea of turning it into rap lyrics.

“His ability to force you to dig deep into your soul, the find the best and bravest of yourself, to pull acting, singing, and dancing out of normal kids....was unmatched. He enriched nearly every young life he touched in ways that are so hard to put into word. I, like hundreds of others, loved Tom Orr and owe him so much.”