“I am done with apple-picking now”
In Memoriam Paul A. Orr
Several years ago a man in the autumn of life commissioned a shirt. It was blue, knit with letters above the heart:
Paul A. Orr
Paul wore that shirt everywhere, including—perhaps especially—places where it might lift an eyebrow. The library, of course. Walks with his faithful dog Sally. With a glint in his eye, he claimed once to have worn it to a friend’s funeral. And he wore that shirt, perched on what would become his own headstone, on the cover of an album of favorite poems that he recorded for family and friends: “A Few Good Words Before I Go.” He did not wear it at a recent gathering of grandchildren, but he did lead them in a stirring rehearsal of a bawdy tune to be performed at his funeral. Take comfort, gentle reader: this was a man who, having lived, feared not death.
Paul Anthony Orr died on August 8, 2023, at home and in the company of his family. His 97 years were an ink-stained, wit-laced, open-hearted decision to realize life—every, every minute. Paul was a man of family and of God; a friend to all animals and most people; a proud Canadian-American; a reader, writer, and teller of tales, even in the dimming of the light. He was, foremost and until the very last, a Teacher.
Students, friends, and family of any generation and relation are invited to celebrate Paul’s life the weekend of September 15-16, 2023.
Contributions may be made in Paul’s honor to the St. Clairsville Public Library, Friends of the Library; Towngate Theatre, where he performed for decades and where, at 87, he made his debut as a playwright; or to Russell Nesbit Services–Wheeling Area Training Center for the Handicapped, an organization Paul co-founded to provide vocational training to those, like his son, who are affected by disabilities. online donations can be made by clicking on the Donate Button above.
I. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means.
From Fern Hill
Paul Anthony Orr was born on April 11, 1926, to William Orr and Kathleen (O’Flaherty) Orr in Toronto, Canada. He took a Bachelor of Arts from Loyola College (now Concordia University) and a Master of Arts in English from McGill University, both in Montreal. He completed his studies with a PhD in English Literature from Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, writing his dissertation on the works of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Recalling these studies in 2013 correspondence, Paul explained that “reading stuff written over a hundred years ago can be dangerously addictive. Once fully launched in graduate school, committed to Victorian Lit., I began to read obsessively great swaths of genteel, undistinguished prose which told boring stories and recounted in minute detail the unimportant events in the careers of undistinguished men. I loved it.”
The summer before he graduated from McGill, Paul worked as a lumberjack for a paper mill outside of Ottawa, and Elsie Jean McCulloch worked as a waitress in Banff Springs. Long distance calls were expensive, and the two talked only once that summer—for three minutes. But they wrote letters, including this one from late summer 1950, perhaps the only known occasion when Paul resorted to the third person:
“He was content to feel the excitement which raced through his blood when he saw her neat, decided writing on an incoming envelope, or to hold the happiness which swept over him when he took his pen and sat down to write her. And he knew instinctively that if he once let her slip he would never find her again.”
He did not let her slip. Paul and Jean wed on June 23, 1951—the beginning of a 58-year partnership that was their constant comfort and joy.
II. A Life in Letters
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deal out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells;
Crying what I do is me: for that I came.
From As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
Shortly after their wedding, Paul and Jean moved to South Bend, Indiana for Paul to begin work on his PhD. After initial teaching at Notre Dame, Paul moved east to serve for several years as an Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In 1956, he took up a new position at a new school: Wheeling College. Paul once observed that his initial thought was to stay for a time, perhaps long enough to stand up the new English department. But Paul, as he often did with a good story, lost track of the time. When he retired in 1996, it was from Wheeling Jesuit University.
Paul quipped that, when he first arrived at Wheeling, it “then consisted of five teaching priests, three buildings, 90 students, and 50 acres of mud.” But, thanks him (or rather, he would be quick to insist, thanks to many others) it grew. Paul believed—he knew—that an education in the liberal arts should be offered to everyone.
So, for forty years, he did. Generations of students came through Paul’s classroom, where he explored teaching interests including poetry, the modern novel, children’s literature, and the plays of Shakespeare as performed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (he had a particular interest in Much Ado About Nothing). He presented nearly two dozen conference papers and took research sabbaticals glorying in the special collections libraries of Dublin, London, Bristol, and Stratford-upon-Avon. Among many other memberships and leadership positions, he was Chairman of the English Department for thirteen years, President of the West Virginia Association of College English Teachers, and upon retirement was elevated to the rank of Professor Emeritus.
But it was the teaching—the students—in which Paul invested his time and his love. One particular expression of his care was the Byzantine grading rubric, which achieved a level of scientific rigor heretofore unfathomed in the humanities: Paul’s system included the C+++ and the C++–, neither of which should be confused with the C+–+. Each academic year began with a ragtag caravan—led first by Paul’s VW bus and later by his decades-long succession of canoe-toting Subaru wagons—that travelled seven hours north to Stratford, Ontario. There, the pilgrimage took up residence in a variety of questionable guesthouses and queued at dawn for student tickets to the performances at the world-famous Stratford Theater Festival. (In retirement, he continued these journeys with his children and grandchildren.)
Closer to home, Paul induced even the shyest students to join in his wide-ranging and irreverent readers’ theatre, HOUCHSAC of Wheeling Jesuit University. Paul’s student and son-in-law, as high-minded in the 1970s as he is today, somberly annotated the Orr Papers to clarify that this was a group of Humanists and Others United in Concern for the Human Spirit in the Age of the Computer. A student of a different bent avers that it was, rather, the Haphazardly Organized Unruly Cabaret Hedonists Stumping at Comedy. Knowing Paul, it was both.
Paul’s life spoke his values, invited you to share them. That stories are what make us human. That literature, verse, and song are the very stuff of life. And that what we love, we sanctify.
As former student Jeanne Neff recalled in a 2018 appreciation, “with fellow English majors in the 1960s, I stood in awe of Father Laut,” another professor in the department. “But it was Paul Orr some of us imagined we might become.” She explained that, “like us, he was transparently flawed: forgetful, a procrastinator, and a poor typist (several of us worked in shifts to help him produce the final draft of his doctoral dissertation, supplied with coffee, carbon paper and correction fluid). For another, we knew him in his habitat: he and Jean generously included us, along with Michael, Kate, Moragh and Siobhan, in their sometimes chaotic but always loving household.” But, in the classroom, “Paul showed us his other side as an unhurried, brilliant close reader of literature and the written word…even ours. He taught us that to burrow into the ambiguity of language is to be forever curious, intrigued by the many possibilities, adventurous, even romantic.”
John McAteer found that “the most startling aspect of Paul Orr’s classroom presentation for many of us was to experience, most for the first time, a dry and understated sense of humor. It must be recalled that in this time of the infancy of television, the overwhelming number of comedic entertainers that any of us knew were comics—boisterous, yuk-it-up, rubber-faced Falstaffian fellows, like Jerry Lewis and Jackie Gleason. Paul’s subtle, oblique remarks were delivered with a mild verbal flourish and a slight smile: ‘Wait, wait! What did he just say?’ Rimshot. Welcome to the civilized world.”
Linda Mizejewski explains that, in the 1970s, Paul came be known as “The Great Orr, or more informally, G.O., and our in-group sign for talking about him was to raise our hands, palms out, close to our heads like those illustrations in Catholic storybooks showing saints who have just seen an apparition. Paul was the Great Orr because he was the smartest, wisest, and most mystifying person we’d ever met— mystifying because his classes usually left us with questions and puzzles instead of answers. My notes for Fr. Laut’s classes were outlines with topic sentences. My notes for Paul’s classes were full of arrows, spirals, exclamation marks, sideways notations, and pictograms. He was teaching us how to think, and his methods were unorthodox. One day he brought in an essay on the Winnie-the-Pooh theory of how to read novels. I’m not sure if this was something he found or something he made up himself, but he read and explained it to us for about fifteen minutes before he stopped and said, “Are you really going to let me go on and on with this bloody nonsense?” We raised our palms in apparition mode.
As Jack Noonan put it, “about the only thing he hasn’t done with the English language, as far as I know, is to print it with a letter press…though I’m not sure he hasn’t.”
III. A Second Act
“He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age.”
Much Ado About Nothing 1.1.12-14
Paul retired in 1996 and promptly set about ignoring the meaning of the word. The Professor Emeritus kept his basement office, likely because everyone else was afraid to go in and risk death beneath its towers of paper. There he worked for years to write a history of Wheeling College, always refusing to complete it. He traveled widely to commune with family and friends.
He also spent even more time at the Towngate Theater, his artistic home for nearly fifty years. Paul’s Towngate cast biography explains that he “acted in parts ranging from offstage shouts to title roles” (including Tartuffe and Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, alongside his friend and mentor Hal O’Leary), “played fondly remembered roles in Playboy of the Western World and In Terminal Decline, and died on stage twice” (each time in plays written by his friend Tom Stobart). Outside the footlights, Paul became a late-life playwright. The Widow’s Tale debuted at the Towngate in 2014, when Paul was 87. Other credits from these years include a stint on regional television, where he relished the opportunity to play “Concerned Senior Citizen No. 1” in an advertisement for a local home health agency whose services he impishly pretended to require.
Paul was for decades a congregant and lector at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Neffs, OH, where was the founder of its Parish Counsel. He was also a warm presence at First Presbyterian Church in St. Clairsville, OH, where he delighted in hearing his wife sing in the choir. Wherever he worshipped, Paul reserved the right to mutter commentary under his breath on the substance or delivery of the sermon, thus instilling in his children and grandchildren the Jesuit virtues of free inquiry (and occasional impertinence).
Paul lived for breakfast, a meal he preferred to take in his housecoat shortly before noon. (One perk of retirement: being free to disregard such philistine notions as “bedtime.” Too many books to read.) Scalding hot coffee, each cup laced with six packets of Splenda, accompanied a ploughman’s breakfast of inconceivable size and richness: eggs both fried and poached; jam made from fruit he had picked, deliberately burned toast presented on a silver letter rack, beans and tomatoes from Jean’s garden, bacon of the Canadian and American varieties—all eaten atop a placemat of that morning’s Wheeling Intelligencer. Explaining his technique, he divulged that he made the bacon first, then used its grease to fry everything else. “What is the point of living until you are 90 if you can’t eat whatever you bloody well like?”
When occasionally he dined outside the house, Paul contributed to the flourishing of the Ohio Valley’s Tim Horton’s donut shops (perhaps his favorite Canadian import) and the liveliness of not a few of its used bookstores—especially the Paradox, a Wheeling shop owned by his friend Tom Stobart.
He also continued to teach, lecturing frequently on American literature at the Wheeling and Bellaire Public Libraries. In 2016, at 90, he gave series of lectures for a visiting exhibition by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Begging off a social engagement, he wrote “I have a Doctor’s appointment on the following Monday, but the real impediment is that on the following Tuesday I must, in about one hour and twenty five minutes, persuade fifty or so people that their lives will not be complete until they have seen a good production of The Tempest. Not easy to do, but fun to try.”
IV. A Family Jamborree
We should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
From The Mower
Paul was preceded in death by his parents; his sister, Denise Colaço; his beloved Elsie Jean McCulloch Orr, wife of 58 years; their son, Michael Hugh Orr; a daughter, Pegi Reese; and a grandson, Michael LaForce. He is survived by three daughters, seven grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren, dozens of nieces and nephews in the McCulloch and Colaço families, and thousands of his students.
“I had children once,” Paul wrote in 2017 correspondence. “It turned out to be a wonderful, baffling, and expensive experience, but things turned out very well. I think it was a philosopher with a large family who said, ‘God writes straight with crooked lines.’” Paul’s line is carried by his daughters: Kathleen Orr of Charlottesville, VA (Harry Dorsey); Moragh Orr Montoya of Cuernavaca, Mexico (Miguel Montoya), and Siobhan McCulloch-Orr of Courtenay, British Columbia (Darren LaForce).
Eight grandchildren knew Paul’s stories by heart, and so too will his ten great grandchildren: Michael LaForce (Heather Wells LaForce of Mentor, OH; Lauren and Christopher); Miguel Montoya of Cuernavaca, Mexico (Siobhan Montoya Lavender; Enrique, Riordan, and Gael); Patrick Orr Dorsey of Charlottesville, VA (Maria McCall Dorsey; Madeline and James); Tim Dorsey of Donnelly, ID (Leslie Van Niel Dorsey; Willa); Brian Dorsey of Columbus, OH (Alyssa Buckingham Dorsey); Paul Montoya of San Francisco, CA (Sophia Pantazes Montoya; Lucca and Elena); McCulloch LaForce of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia; and Liam LaForce of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Paul’s grandchildren will remember him as a figure at once titanic and gentle. He saw to our education in various ways, formal and…shall we say, otherwise. He taught us how to pilot a canoe, to use an axe, to fry an egg, and which Robert Frost poems are worth knowing by heart. (And also to not be quite so gullible: he had several of us convinced for days that the liver spots on his hands were, in fact, a sign that he would soon be elevated to the Papacy. Grandma was not pleased.) He knew what books we would like years before we had a clue, and sent them to us so that they would be there when we needed them. And he was generous: he led various bands of his children and grandchildren to show us some of the arts and of life in London, Dublin, and Stratford. Those trips were the delight of his later years, and a gift for the rest of ours.
V. A Few Good Words Before I Go
And for all this, nature is never spent
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
From God’s Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
It was a special delight for Paul and his family that, in the fourteen years after Elsie Jean’s death, he spent most his time making a home with his daughters and his sons-in-law. With Siobhan and Darren, in the Ohio home where Paul’s collection of early editions of Black Beauty stood not far from Darren’s boat. With Kate and Harry, drinking all of the tea in Virginia. And with Moragh and Miguel, first in California and most recently—having decided to savor the experience of becoming an expat (for the second time) at 95—beginning a new chapter in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Paul swung an axe and portaged canoes into his 70s, took to the stage into his 80s, and led family on foreign tours into his 90s. For much of the later part of his life, Paul had the use of only one eye—the other having gone blind quite suddenly on the Towngate stage one night (he finished the soliloquy before leaving the stage). He beat cancer twice. He moved into, and then out of retirement communities on three separate occasions, each time to continue his travels. He broke his hip at 94, an injury and an age that prompts physicians to deploy a range of euphemisms for “get your affairs in order.” But Paul walked again, and lived another three years (waving off a bout of COVID earlier this year for good measure).
Having given away an enormous library of novels written by others, Paul began—at last—to write his own. He filled dozens of legal pads with stories: romances, character studies, tales of derring-do. He started writing in these notebooks after he lost the ability to walk. And he kept doing it until he could not see, his handwriting growing looser, trailing down and off the pages—“straight, with crooked lines.”
* * *
Doctors warned several times of Paul’s impending death, a fate he deferred by apparently doing little more than resuming his normal breakfast of fried eggs and turning up the volume on his audiobooks. He lost most of his sight and a good bit of his hearing, but his warm and resonant baritone remained, continuing a decades-long run of phone conversations with friends, family, and former students around the world. His mind and his wit remained sharper than yours. Paul Orr was ineffably, reassuringly, entirely there—until the very moment he wasn’t.
As his strength waned, Paul was nourished by the grace, good humor, and care of Aida, Alejandra, Liz, Rocio, and Jennifer, to whom our family will be eternally grateful. In the months before Paul died, the refrigerator doors at his Cuernavaca home began to proliferate with his caretakers’ notecards, listing Spanish-English translations of certain words essential to Paul: Coffee. Walking. Books.
“He is teaching,” Liz explained. “He is teaching English.”