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Losing a Local Human Treasure of History

Tom Orr watches the dress rehearsal of one of his historical plays, with Mary Barber in 2008 in the ornate balcony of the Henderson County Historic Courthouse’s main chambers.

Hendersonville – Tom Orr, who left this earth’s stage last week from a heart attack at age 81, graced us with his spectacular historical plays and immense contributions as a longtime educator and historian.

I see Tom’s face whenever I see the Historic Henderson County Courthouse, its golden dome, its main chamber upstairs, and the Heritage Museum on the main floor. He chaired the courthouse’s centennial committee in 2005. He was a driving force to get the courthouse renovated and rededicated in 2008, and the amazing museum inside. He helped develop historic exhibits, as the museum’s program director. His riveting historical plays were performed upstairs where county commissioners now meet.

The courthouse dome is topped by a six-foot-high statue of Lady Justice/Greek goddess Themis who uniquely and purposely lacks a “blind justice” blindfold.

Once the dome and statue were initially painted during renovations, Tom was furious in a phone chat with me. “It looks like dog crap!” he said about the odd greenish tint to the gold. He vowed to get it repainted into true gold — and did.

Many of us also associate him with his alma mater Hendersonville High School (HHS), and other old schools he cherished.

The “Teen Canteen” was his hangout in the Fifties. It was below ground, near the northwest corner of Fourth and Main. It is storage space now, off-limits to the public other than a one-time tour. Imagine Tom Orr dancing in the dimly-lit elongated main room. Many women describe tall dapper “Tommy” as a superb dancer as a teen.

Thomas Edward Orr was a grad of HHS in 1957, then UNC-CH. He later earned a master’s degree from WCU. He taught mostly English and drama, in HHS for 32 years until 1994. He then served as school board chairman, in 1994-96. That is when I first met him. He pushed for fuller funding of schools, early into city-county consolidation.

He is in the national Educational Theatre Association’s Hall of Fame. He was Southern Theatre Conference president. He helped develop the curriculum for Flat Rock Playhouse’s Vagabond classes.

History Hound, Civic Organizer

Tom was a local Civitan Citizen of the Year in 2017. He was a newspaper columnist for the past 11 years, specializing in local history. He used the written and spoken word and imagery to transport us back into the past.

Tom was the playwright and director of seven historical community theater productions — starting with Evidence of Yesterday in 2005 — that raised money for the historical museum and Walk of Fame. He started the History Initiative and its Walk of Fame with ground plaques honoring people who contributed to many aspects of our local community and culture. The Tom Orr Historian Award is for extraordinary research and preservation of local history.

Tom diligently honored people in public — with lasting exhibits, ceremonies and banquets. He launched the Henderson County Education Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 2002, as its executive director. I wrote inductee bios for the first dozen years, as a side project. Tom splurged with HCEF funds for induction banquets to treat a couple hundred guests. His HCEF successor, Dr. Don Jones, monetized the event as a pivotal fundraiser for scholarships and teacher grants. As a one-two punch, they took HCEF to greater heights.

Tom Blended Words with Images

I am privileged to have collaborated with Tom and then Don on many historical and educational projects. I felt like Tom’s historian apprentice.

He shared so many personal memories, and stories passed down through generations. He was a vivid storyteller, a precise wordsmith. These recollections painted pictures of early pioneers such as boisterous Judge Mitchell King, and more recent movers and shakers. Tom’s grandfather, John L. Orr, was a city commissioner. Tom conscientiously featured local black historic figures, too.

His plays told of such pivotal historical events as choosing a county seat. After fierce debate, voters in 1840 chose the centralized Buncombe Turnpike (now U.S. 25) carriage path endorsed by the “Road Party,” over the River Party’s river bend spot in Horse Show.

Tom put photos behind his words, for multi-media splendor in plays and historical slide shows he and the late Chat Jones presented to civic groups. Tom utilized Baker-Barber historical photos and my snapshots of current landmarks.

We literally walked through history together in rural Green River one cloudy day, for me to take photos for a slide show such as of author Robert Morgan’s childhood home. In a cemetery, tombstones had familiar names of pioneers. Tom was like a Ghost of Henderson County Past.

Tom honored leading local historians before him from Frank FitzSimons and J.T. Fain to Louise Bailey. He worshipped local native Robert Morgan and his bestselling novel Gap Creek about simple, strong-willed post-WWII life in southern Henderson County.

Sophisticated Tom quoted scintillating poetry. Yet he deployed a common touch with mountaineer dialogue.

‘Excelsior!’

Tom Orr often grinned and unleashed a joyous staccato chuckle. In contrast, he could be a stern taskmaster when directing plays. He pushed for greater excellence and got it. When encouraging, his favorite phrase was the Latin for recognizing excellence — “Excelsior!”

Thus, may we all shout “Excelsior!” — to the heavens, to honor Tom Orr.

His email blended his first and last name together, into “tomorr.” Ad “ow!” — perhaps in reaction to chaos and challenges we face these days — and you get “tomorrow.” This is an omen for how Tom Orr’s celebration of the past and mountain traditions of perseverance propels us into the future.

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