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Local historian leaves considerable legacy


Associate Editor

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Dr. Robert Robinson Orr, the president of Washington College Academy, died Thursday, June 23. He was selected president of the Academy in 2010 and had worked diligently to preserve the school’s educational setting and programs.

Last week’s Herald & Tribune featured an upcoming program on historic methodology Orr was slated to deliver to the Washington County Historical Association in July.  He was the vice-president of the Association.

Dr. Robert Orr

Funeral services are scheduled this evening at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Greeneville. Orr, affectionately known as “Bob Orr,” 73, died in a one-car automobile crash on State Route 351 on Thursday afternoon in Chuckey.

A native of Greene County, Orr graduated from Greeneville High School in 1960 and went to the University of Tennessee where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1965 and a master’s in history in 1969.  He earned a doctorate in history at the University of Maine in 1979.

He was known locally as an educator, historian, author, artist and musician.  On Sundays, you would find him playing the grand piano in the lobby of the General Morgan Inn.  He worked tirelessly for his beloved Washington College Academy.

“Dr. Orr has been an ardent supporter and leader of the school for many years and had touched the lives of so many people.  He was our leader and will be missed,” a statement from the WCA Board of Trustees, posted on the Academy’s blog, stated. The courses Orr taught at the Academy included history of the Civil War in East Tennessee, genealogy, the Middle East Crisis plus numerous other topics.  He was named Teacher of the Year at WCA in 2006-07.

George Banks, vice-president of the WCA Board of Trustees and past-president of the Greene County Heritage Trust, said, “It was a great shock when I found out he had died.  We had just been planning more things to do.  He had a million thoughts.”

Banks remembered Orr as an “active protagonist” for Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States.   He said, “I don’t think there’s anyone more enthusiastic about trying to promote Andrew Johnson than Bob Orr.”

Working with local artist Joe Kilday, Orr developed a historical art program at WCA that focused on topics of area history.  “He would share the history and make sure the paintings were historically accurate.  He loved art.  He was quite an artist in his own right,” Banks said.

Martha Nell Estes, Limestone, a member of the school’s Board of Trustees said, “We had a trustees’ meeting scheduled Thursday night. We got a phone call.  Dr. Banks answered the phone and then told the board, ‘Dr. Orr is dead.’”

Estes said Monday that former Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp will serve as Acting President of Washington College Academy. She said the board has made it clear that “Programs at the school will continue. We have approximately 10 people signed up this summer for a class on masonry, teaching students to become bricklayers.” She said that the board has announced that it will continue the school’s fall schedule. She emphasized that despite Orr’s death, “We are not closing the school.”

Speaking of Orr, she added, “He was such a good person in every way. He always had a different angle on every topic.” Numerous individuals talked of how kind and gentle Orr was. Many indicated that Dr. Orr had never met a stranger and described him as a true and wonderful friend.

A partial  list of his  publications include: a biography of Andrew Johnson, “President Andrew Johnson of Greeneville, Tennessee,” published in 2005; “Blue, Gray and Homespun: The Civil War in East Tennessee,” a comprehensive and impressive study of East Tennessee’s Civil War story published in 2013; and “In Defense of Andrew Johnson,” also published in 2013.

He recently completed a draft of what he considered “his life’s work,” a full volume about President Andrew Johnson, Watts said. The work has been in the process of being edited, but has not yet been published.

Stevie Hughes, president of the Greene County Genealogical Society, said “I can honestly say I have never met anyone who could compare with Bob’s combined artistic talents, intellect and knowledge.  Musician artist, author, scholar, historian, educator – there were no limits to his God-given abilities.  He was a true Renaissance man.”

Orr performed on both keyboard and guitar at numerous local events, often performing jazz and classical styles. “Besides truly being a Renaissance genius, artist and musician, he was a very scholared academic,” said Lizzie Watts, a longtime friend of Orr’s and superintendent of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.  “He spent his lifetime doing tremendous first-person primary research.”

“Dr. Orr taught me more about Andrew Johnson than anybody alive,” Watts said.  “From his perspective, Andrew Johnson had gotten a really bad rap from historians.  He believed he was honorable, hard working and a dedicated public servant.”  Orr often assisted Watts at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville.

This article was written with the assistance of material supplied by the Greeneville Sun who gave permission for it use.