*Post written by James Wethington, senior library assistant for the University Archives and Special Collections.
Throughout Evansville, there are numerous buildings and streets that bares someone’s name. The real question is, have you ever wondered the story behind it? You are in luck because several Evansville icons will be discussed in a seven-part miniseries. The first place is in the heart of the University of Southern Indiana (USI): the Robert D. Orr Center.
Robert D. Orr was born on November 17, 1917, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Evansville. He graduated from Yale University, with a bachelor’s in American History, and attended Harvard Graduate School; however, he left Harvard to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. Orr was stationed in the Pacific Theatre through the war. He did achieve moving in rank from private to major and awarded the Legion of Merit medal for exceptionally conduct in his service. After the war ended, Orr moved to Evansville and worked in the family business, Orr Iron Company.
In Evansville, Orr achieved political success and served as precinct committeeman, convention delegate, and the chair of the Vanderburgh County Republican Party. The first elected position Orr held was on the Center Township Advisory Board in Vanderburgh County as member and chair. He decided to move his political career to the state level. It finally happened in 1968 when he was elected to the Indiana Senate. Before he realized it, his political career had skyrocketed. Orr was elected as lieutenant governor in 1972 and 1976, serving alongside Dr. Otis Bowen. During his lieutenant governorship, Orr served as the director of Indiana Department of Commerce, Commissioner of Agriculture, and President of the Senate. As 1980 approached, Bowen couldn’t run for governor because of term limits; however, Bowen gave Orr his approval and he won the Republican nomination. He would win the governorship in the largest margin in Indiana gubernatorial history, 57.7% to 41.9%.
In Orr’s first term as governor, Indiana was in a recession. His focus was getting the state out of a deficit, which finally happened in 1982 when the state legislature increased the state income and sales taxes. He continued to focus on economic development into his second term after being reelected in 1984; but he was also centered on education. His “A-Plus” package was passed, which required achievement testing and the creation of a new school accreditation system, and “Prime Time” program, which reduced classroom sizes and increased the school year. After he left office in 1989, Orr served as the US ambassador to Singapore until 1992.
Some maybe asking, what did Orr do for USI? If it wasn’t for Orr, there wouldn’t be USI because it was known from 1965 to 1985 as a satellite campus for Indiana State University (ISUE). On April 16, 1985, then-governor Orr signed Senate Bill #207, allowing ISUE to become an independent university, becoming USI in the process. USI dedicated to honor Orr and his work for USI by naming the next university building after him. The Orr Center was only the sixth building built on the property of USI and first since 1980, when the HYER or Physical Activities Center (PAC) was completed. It was opened and dedicated on June 10, 1990 (“Orr Center dedication”, pg. 1). Orr would receive an honorary degree at the first commencement for USI in 1986, along with his wife, Joanne. Orr passed away on March 10, 2004.
For more information on the Orr Center and the University Archives collections, visit the Online Digital Gallery available at the David L. Rice Library through the University Archives and Special Collections (UASC). The gallery has seven galleries over the history of ISUE and USI, such as university newsletters, the Shield newspapers, yearbooks, and commencement programs.
Associated Press. (2004, March 12). Robert D. Orr, 86 governor who revamped Indiana schools. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/12/us/robert-d-orr-86-governor-who-revamped-indiana-schools.html
Indiana Department of Administration. (2020). Robert D. Orr. Retrieved from https://www.in.gov/idoa/2787.htm
Indiana Governor History. (2020). Robert D. Orr. Retrieved from https://www.in.gov/governorhistory/2335.htm
Indianapolis Star. (2004, March 15). Governor Robert D. Orr. Retrieved from https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/indystar/obituary.aspx?n=robert-d-orr&pid=143713497
National Governors Association. (2020). Governor Robert D. Orr. Retrieved from https://www.nga.org/governor/robert-d-orr/
Orr Center dedication. (1990, June 6). University Notes. Retrieved from http://digitalarchives.usi.edu/digital/collection/UNotes/id/14628/rec/1
University of Southern Indiana. (2020). Honorary degrees, 1985-1989. https://www.usi.edu/about/university-honors-and-awards/honorary-degree-recipients/honorary-degrees-1985-1989/