Friends recalled Bill Orr's passion for serving others and his self-effacing humor in the hours following his death Sunday from respiratory disease at age 78.
Orr, who was married to former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr for 55 years, was an insurance executive who became famous for being the state's “first gentleman” from 1987 to 1991. In addition to his wife, he is survived by son John Orr, daughter Suzanne Gage of Lincoln and seven grandchildren.
John Orr said his father had been ill for some time with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He died at his Lincoln home early Sunday surrounded by family members.
“There were 25 hours of absolute joy, tears, memories, blessings and laughter,” Gage said. “The beauty of our relationship was that there was nothing that went unsaid.”
Funeral services will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Christ Lutheran Church in Lincoln. Graveside services and a reception will follow the funeral services.
The family also plans to receive visitors from 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Roper & Sons Funeral Home in Lincoln.
The funeral and visitation are open to the public.
In lieu of flowers, memorials are suggested to the People's City Mission and Lincoln Crisis Pregnancy Center.
Gage said her father grew up in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in business.
She said she and her brother grew up in Lincoln with parents who were nurturing and vital. Bill Orr was an elder at Christ Lutheran Church and enjoyed being a mentor in Tom Osborne's Teammates program, his daughter said.
He loved talking with his grandkids about anything and everything, Gage said, and he tailored his conversations to topics that were special to each child, whether it was fishing, politics, piano lessons, sports or carpentry.
“Dad had the ability to encourage and affirm people in a very genuine way — professionally as well as personally,” she said. “Just recently I was able to say 'Dad, thank you for stamping my passport,' and he knew exactly what I meant, because he'd been there for me in so many ways.”
Tom Henning, president of Assurity Life Insurance Co., said he met Orr when the latter was senior vice president of marketing and sales for Woodman Accident and Life Insurance. The companies later merged.
“Bill truly believed in life insurance and disability coverage for the peace of mind it brings a family,” Henning said. “It wasn't about making a profit, for Bill. He really believed in his mission to make things better for people.”
Henning said one of the first things he noticed about Orr was his sense of humor. Orr liked to tell jokes and funny stories, often at his own expense, Henning said.
“One story he really liked to tell was about being back home in Iowa and meeting Kay's old boyfriend at a gas station,” Henning said. “They got back in the car and Bill said to Kay 'Aren't you glad you married me instead of him, because I turned out to be the senior vice president of marketing and sales.' Kay told him 'How do you know if I married (the old boyfriend) that he wouldn't have become senior vice president of marketing and sales?' Bill loved that story.”
Mark Whitehead, a candidate for the Lincoln City Council, said he was touched by Orr's encouragement even as the older man battled for his life. Orr called Whitehead within the past month to ask how his campaign was going and tell him to keep working, he said.
“He was just always a pleasant person. I never heard him say a cross word to or about anyone,” Whitehead said. “He had an awful lot of fun with his role as first gentleman after Kay was elected governor.”
Orr combined his wry wit and penchant for community service in writing the “First Gentleman's Cookbook.” All proceeds from the book went to renovate the Governor's Mansion.
Once as traditional a husband as you could find, Orr told reporters he became an expert in the kitchen out of desperation when his wife started her political career. All he knew about food was that he liked to eat it, but he didn't know the first thing about cooking, Orr said.
“Recipes were like the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said. “Kay's a great cook, but I realized with her involvement in politics that if I was going to have home cooking, I was going to have to do it myself.”
Among the contributors to the cookbook were Warren Buffett, then-first lady Barbara Bush, Johnny Carson, Tom Osborne, Bob Devaney, actress Katharine Hepburn and former first lady Nancy Reagan.
Stories about Orr and his cookbook appeared in the New York Times, People magazine and Fortune magazine.
The role of first gentleman was one that Orr welcomed, Whitehead said, because he loved his wife as well as the campaign trail.
“He liked walking with Kay through cafes, visiting with people and telling them a little about himself,” Whitehead said. “He had a down-to-earth nature, and he was incredibly bright, and possessed an unassuming quick wit. ... It was just a pleasure to be around him.”
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