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Marcus W. Orr, 1925–1990

By Paul Dudenhefer (B.A. 1988)

When I was a student at Memphis State University, I didn't realize I was looking for a father figure to "initiate me into manhood," as my friends and I used to say. That is, I didn't realize that until I met, in the fall of 1986, Marcus W. Orr.

A six-foot six-inch native of Texarkana, Arkansas, and the son of a Cadillac and Chevrolet dealer, Dr. Orr was, by title, a professor of medieval and Renaissance history. But in this case, titles tell only part of the story. By the time I began taking classes at Memphis State in 1983, Dr. Orr was nearing the end of a long career as a patron of the arts, an advocate for the disabled (a spinal cord injury suffered in the final months of World War II had left him a paraplegic), and unofficial advisor and counselor for legions of students. Many students who found their way to Memphis State, a large commuter school with modest admissions standards, were only tenuously invested in a college education at best; the slightest obstacle could easily discourage them from continuing their studies. (When I was enrolled, only around one-quarter of all freshmen eventually graduated.) It was to Marcus Orr whom distressed but intelligent students turned. One acquaintance of mine, a man about ten years older than me and who introduced me to Dr. Orr, suffered from alcoholism and a chronic money problems. At one point Marcus Orr had paid his tuition and given him a place to live. "That man saved my life," he said. "I would be dead without him."

By the time I arrived at Memphis State, "Ask Marcus Orr" had become a byword on campus, an invocation to the seemingly supernatural wisdom he possessed. He was almost vampire-like in that he seemed to have lived not only in his own age but in all ages. I could almost believe he had been present when Leo III crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 or when Urban II in 1096 preached the First Crusade or when Henry Adams first laid eyes on Mt. Saint Michel. What is certain is that Marcus Orr must be the only university professor for whom a World War II detention camp was named. In 1945 he was a twenty-year-old GI driving a jeep in Austria when gunfire from a German airplane sent shrapnel into his body, severing his spinal cord just below his chest. The tall Arkansan would spend his remaining forty-five years seated in a wheelchair. To honor their wounded brother, his outfit gave a new name to the detention camp, which lay just outside of Salzburg: Camp Marcus W. Orr.

What is less certain is the accuracy of Dr. Orr's claim that he was present at the liberation of Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp. Army records indicate that he was wounded and discharged on April 3, 1945; the concentration camp was not liberated until several days later. Be that as it may, he certainly believed he was there, and that is what is important. Whether it was true or not, he made it an essential part of his own life history.

Marcus Wayne Orr was born on March 29, 1925, in Texarkana, Arkansas. He liked to joke that Ross Pee-row (he put the accent on the first syllable), the business magnate and former presidential candidate, was his boyhood neighbor. (Dr. Orr sometimes sounded like Ross Perot but with a deeper voice.) His father, who liked Roman emperors and named his son after one, sold Cadillacs and Chevrolets; his mother was a piano teacher. Mark graduated from high school in Texarkana and was inducted into the army in August 1943. After training in Arkansas and Illinois, he was assigned to the 742 Light Ordnance Maintenance Company of the celebrated 42d Rainbow infantry division. He landed at Marseilles in January 1945. One member of his company remembered him as a "bright, clean-cut young man and a good soldier."

By April he was in Germany. In the early morning of Monday, April 2, he was driving a jeep for a munitions officer when the guns of a low-flying German airplane opened fire. A piece of shrapnel ripped through his spinal cord. Treated on the battlefield, he was eventually evacuated to the States, to the old Kennedy General Hospital, in Memphis. The survival rate for soldiers who had suffered spinal cord injuries in World War I was only ten percent. By the time of World War II, the rate was better, but a normal lifespan was hardly assured. A soldier in World War II who suffered a spinal cord injury would, as likely as not, die within ten years. Even generals, who perhaps received better care than foot soldiers, had a poor prognosis: consider that army doctors could not save the life of General George S. Patton when his spinal cord was injured in an automobile accident.

As he recuperated, Mark had to decide what to do with his life at a time when society expected its crippled citizens to "hide in a corner," as he once put it. One thing he did do was to become involved with bettering the lives of the disabled. In February 1947 he and two other paralyzed veterans traveled from Memphis to Chicago—Mark, who had "one good leg," according to one of the passengers, drove the car—to help found the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

By that year, he had become sufficiently adept at living in a wheelchair to consider attending college. He matriculated to Yale, but the Ivy League school, which had no ramps, proved simply too inaccessible. He transferred to Southwestern at Memphis (today Rhodes College), which, although as inaccessible as Yale, offered him some flexibility. He was able to attend all his classes in first-floor rooms and could park his car in a special place with a ramp. At the time, he wanted to be a neurosurgeon; he spent his summers working for the medical school at the University of Indiana, which administered the National Paraplegia Foundation. He traveled thousands of miles around the country to interview paralyzed veterans, eventually completing a study on the problems they faced in readjusting to civilian life. He graduated from Southwestern in 1952. By that time, the University of Illinois, largely through the efforts of Governor Adlai Stevenson, had made its campus completely accessible to wheelchairs. By that time, too, Mark had given up his ambition to become a surgeon; medical schools were simply not set up to accommodate students in wheelchairs. But he had developed an interest in the Renaissance. He enrolled as a graduate student at Illinois and completed master's and doctoral degrees in history.

After he finished his PhD, he was invited by the National Paraplegia Foundation and England's National Health Service to travel around that country to see what the British were doing for the disabled. His findings were published in a series of articles in the Journal of Paraplegia.

After touring England, he spent several months on the Continent. At the time, there were no travel guides for the disabled, so he managed by trial and error. Bellhops carried him upstairs to his room in a hotel on a rainy night in the French Riviera; in Greece, he lay on his stomach as a donkey carried him to a temple on a scenic hilltop. When he returned to the States, there was still the problem of employment. Not only would it cost money for any university (except Illinois) to hire him—the university would at least have to install ramps to allow him access to his office and classrooms and the library—it would also cause controversy to hire a person in a wheelchair.

Back in Memphis, through the help of friends, Marcus Orr was hired by Memphis State in 1959 and soon began organizing efforts to make the campus accessible to wheelchairs. When, a few years later, he was elected president of the faculty council, he went into action. With the help of a $100,000 grant from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, he created "Operation Even Break," a committee of teachers, doctors, architects, and engineers that produced a report in 1966 outlining a program of improvements and modifications the university could make in order to make its campus accessible to disabled students and faculty. Curb cuts, grab bars in toilet stalls, and ramps were installed, and an office of services for disabled students was created. A few years later, he was active in the movement that eventually led to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which withheld federal funds from institutions that discriminated against the disabled.

During his career as a history professor he still maintained a keen interest in neurosurgery. He helped neurosurgeons edit their work, bringing to it a historical perspective that the surgeons did not have. One of the neurosurgeons he worked with was Arnold Meirowsky, a famous combat surgeon in World War II and the Korean War and about whom Dr. Orr had planned to write a biography.

His advocacy on behalf of the disabled was something I didn't learn about until after his death. To me, during the few years I knew him, he was the father figure who, like no adult before, had taken me and my ambition to be a writer seriously.

Marcus Orr was the first adult I feared who took seriously my desire to be a writer. I feared my father too, but despite his advanced degrees and a career spent in education (for thirty years he was an instructor and administrator at a two-year college), he never understood, much less shared, my attraction to writing and books and the intellectual life more generally. It was Marcus Orr, not my father, who, after asking me what I wanted to be and hearing me say "a writer," said, "Good. I was hoping you would say that." I feared Marcus Orr because I wanted his approval. I wanted him to recognize in me what I recognized in myself: a bright and sensitive young man destined for great things. With his learning and interests and travels—although his classes were nominally on history, his lectures and conversation were as often about Hemingway or Melville or Goethe as about the great cathedrals or the fall of Rome—Marcus Orr was, for me, a way out. He could pull me out of the world in which I had been taught to believe—a world in which one prayed for an opportunity to come one's way, in which one was grateful for what little one had, in which one did not get too big for one's britches, a world of scarcity and humility and original sin—he could pull me out of that world and into a world of great books, great ideas, great art, great people, a world in which New York and Paris and Rome were as familiar as New Orleans and Memphis and the little towns in between.

It was early in the spring semester of 1987 when the conversation about my wanting to be a writer took place. But my first substantive interaction with Marcus Orr occurred a semester before, in the fall of 1986. I was a student in his World Civilizations course, a freshman-level introductory history course that Dr. Orr loved to teach; I sometimes think that for him, it was the most important course the department offered. It allowed him to get to know some of that year's crop of freshmen; it also allowed him ample scope for teaching. The subject matter of the course was sufficiently broad that he could lecture about all manner of things. He might begin lecturing about the Egyptian pyramids but end up leading his students in a discussion of contemporary architecture before returning to his original subject.

The textbook he used was World Civilizations, by Burns and Ralph. When a student did not know the answer to a question that dealt with the assigned reading, Dr. Orr would say, "You're not reading my textbook. I'd read it, if I were you. It will help you. I don't know how it will help you; but I know it will." The first assignment for a grade that semester was to read a primer on Greek mythology, Gods, Heroes, and Men of Ancient Greece, by H. D. W. Rouse, and complete a take-home essay exam on the book. As was my usual bad practice, I waited until the day before the assignment was due to begin. In the early evening I went to a small bar on South Highland and, over a couple of beers, tried to compose brilliant answers to the questions, answers that would set me apart from the other students in the class and that would demonstrate to Dr. Orr my wisdom and acuity. I wanted to impress him, and mightily at that. Not surprisingly, the beers interfered with my judgment, and I set the assignment aside for another day. I would ask Dr. Orr for an extension. The next day, after class, I followed Dr. Orr into his office and asked for an extra day to complete the assignment. "I can't do that," he said flatly. "Part of the assignment is to turn it in on time. I'm afraid I will have to give you a zero."

I was dismayed and dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me that he would refuse my request. I felt chastened, but more determined than ever to prove myself to him. I announced I would have to drop the class, because I now could not make an A. (How foolish of me, I now realize!) "But I hope to see you next semester," I said. "Hell, I hope to see you anytime," he replied.

The next semester, I registered for his course on the high Middle Ages. After the first day of class, I again followed him into his office. "I took the liberty of looking at your record," Dr. Orr began as soon as he had maneuvered his wheelchair through the stacks of books, like so many leaning towers of Pisa, that were scattered on the floor of his office, and to a position behind his desk. My record? I thought. I have a record? And you have taken the time to look at it? "It looks quite good," he continued. "You are making A's in the subjects you should be making A's in—philosophy, for example—and C's in the subjects you should be making C's in—like tennis." There then followed the conversation about my wanting to be a writer and how pleased he was to hear that. Feeling encouraged, I eagerly told him I was reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road. A doubtful look came over his face. After a few moments of pregnant silence, he said, choosing his words carefully, "There's a lot a young man can learn from Kerouac. He was a bright spirit. But," he continued, adjusting his body in his wheelchair, "have you read Hemingway?"

As soon as I returned to my apartment after the day's classes, I plunged into In Our Time and A Farewell to Arms.

By normal standards, Marcus Orr, paralyzed from the chest down, was handicapped; but normal standards are not always useful or enlightening. As Dr. Orr proved, to say that someone is handicapped is sometimes to say little at all. He was determined to live as normal a life as possible, and except for the special method he had devised for getting into and out of his Oldsmobile (yes, he did drive a car), his life seemed normal to me.

But of course no paraplegic's life is really normal. His was a life of frequent checkups and monitoring by teams of neurologists and spinal cord experts. Paraplegics are highly vulnerable to blood clots and pneumonia and to all kinds of dangerous infections from pressure sores. Going to the bathroom is a hassle, so paraplegics rely on catheters and enemas. Then there's the problem of accessing buildings and other spaces. To get into Mitchell Hall, where his office was, Dr. Orr used a ramp behind the building, a ramp that had been constructed specifically for him. Still, most of the buildings on campus in 1959, when he joined the faculty, were inaccessible to him, including the library, so he was forced by circumstances to agitate on behalf of greater access for the disabled. Most of the ramps and other modifications on the Memphis State campus today that allow access to wheelchairs are due in large part to Marcus Orr's efforts.

Marcus Orr often referred to the "geography" of the body. A person's face, he pointed out, has contours, ridges, valleys, and protuberances, just as any natural landscape does. Marcus Orr's face had fleshy cheeks and a fleshy nose; his ears were big; his forehead was small. The corners of his mouth were white from the antacid tablets he consumed. He was an incurable fidget; he had to be in order to prevent pressure sores from forming. With my healthy spinal cord, I can rely on unpleasant sensations to tell me to move so that blood can flow to areas of my skin that are becoming deprived of the red stuff. Marcus Orr could not. Instead, he had to remind himself to move every few minutes in order to keep the blood flowing in adequate amounts to all parts of his body. Numerous times in the course of a fifty-minute lecture he would push down on the arms of his wheelchair to lift his rear end off the seat and let the skin of his buttocks fall from the bones so blood could flow in. He would repeatedly grab his thighs and move his legs; with his arms he would lift his feet off of the footplates and place them flat on the floor of the classroom; a few seconds later, he would lift them back up and back onto the footplates. He'd push his wheelchair to one side of the classroom, next to the row of windows and in front of the big historical atlas that stood in the corner, then to the other side by the doorway, then to a position in front of his desk, then to a position behind it. He was always in motion, except for those times when he would lapse into reverie, looking at no one or no thing in particular as he recounted a story from his personal or professional life. Tears would well in his eyes and he'd fold his arms across his chest to hug himself; a bittersweet or amused look would steal across his face. I imagine he knew that the end of his life was near; he had cheated death for sixty-five years and was savoring his good fortune and mourning in advance his departure from his friends and family and from the world in which he saw so much beauty amid the vulgar and the violent.

Dr. Orr's wheelchair was an office on wheels. He always had crammed between his legs and the armrests two or three or four books—or five or six. For a "desktop," he used a piece of pressboard that he laid across his lap; one side of the board was concave so that it fit snugly against his belly. He carried with him a large leather pouch with a zipper running across the top; the pouch usually could not be zipped entirely closed, as it was often stuffed with papers and grade books and recent issues of the New York Review of Books or the American Scholar.

Dr. Orr always wore a jacket and, quite remarkably for the time, a bowtie. For the first few weeks of our acquaintance, during which I had seen him only on campus, I assumed he wore the jacket and tie only at work. But the first time I visited him at his house, which was on Audubon Drive near the Dixon Gallery—it was a Saturday afternoon—I found him dressed in the same formal attire he wore on campus. I suppose he wore a bowtie instead of a necktie because the latter might get in the way when he had to reposition himself in his wheelchair. But I also like to think he wore the bowtie to cultivate and keep up a certain appearance. Any Jack might wear a necktie; but only men of great learning wore bowties! As far as I remember, Dr. Orr was the only professor at Memphis State who wore a bowtie. Even the other older professors, men of Dr. Orr's age, wore neckties. Today, bowties have made a comeback of sorts and do not seem as idiosyncratic. But during the time I knew Dr. Orr, bowties were unusual, and his wearing one (especially at home on Saturdays) further heightened the considerable aura of wisdom with which I had come to invest him.

He taught his students to make, as he put it, "distinctions in things." Being only eighteen, we entered Memphis State with only a crude understanding of the world. We recognized broad categories—poem, tree, garden—but we did not know a sonnet from an elegy, an oak from a maple, a French garden from an English one. It was those finer things, those "distinctions," that Dr. Orr endeavored to teach us. "What is a cathedral?" he would ask the class. He normally called on a student by name. "Paul, what's a cathedral?"

"A big church," I would clumsily offer.

"A big church? Well, maybe. It's true that many cathedrals are big. But let's make distinctions in things. Is a church a cathedral just because it's big?" I shook my head. "Of course not. So what's a cathedral?"

I remained silent. He said, "If you don't know, don't sit there like a bump on a log; just say 'Dr. Orr, I don't know.' It's OK to be ignorant; just don't stay that way." "I don't know."

"Help him out, David. What's a cathedral?" David didn't know either, so Dr. Orr would call on another student, who also didn't know. Dr. Orr would explain, eventually, that a cathedral is the bishop's church; it is the site of the bishop's throne. "Do we have a cathedral in Memphis?" he might then ask. "Sure do. And where is it, Emily? Where is the cathedral in Memphis?"

"It's in midtown, I think."

"Sure is. But where in midtown?"

"I believe it's on Central Avenue."

"All right; good girl. It's on Central Avenue, near the intersection of McLean and Central." He would then turn to another student. "Jeff, what's a diocese?" And so on. Dr. Orr had a repertoire of questions that he asked his classes over the course of every semester, questions that got at some of the big themes in life. He used the questions to put into a timeless context the nominal subject matter of the history courses he taught. Who's your best friend? Your best critic. What is war? The failure of civilization. What is the function of art? Art defines reality. What is philosophy? Philosophy is taking an aspect of reality and following it where it goes. What is history? Change over time. What is a city? A center of work life. What is a university? A collection of colleges. What is a college? A collection of colleagues. What are we colleagues in? We are colleagues in learning.

He often said a great person is someone who surrounds himself with great books, great art, great objects.

He usually began his lectures with a statement of great moment. "One of the most extraordinary things to occur during the Renaissance . . ." or "One of the most important developments in the history of medieval government . . .," he would begin. Dr. Orr's lectures may have begun about one thing, but they usually touched upon an extraordinary range of subjects that had little to do (or so it seemed) with the stated subject of the course. Goethe and his late blooming ("At forty, the gaskets blew," Dr. Orr said); the salacious diaries of John Addington Symonds ("They'll singe your hair"); Hamlet ("You can't act right in a world world"); John Quincy Adams and the establishment of standard weights and measures; the difference between English gardens and French gardens; the Italian novelist Alessandro Monsoni; the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright; Henry Adams's autobiography; Hemingway's short stories ("Hemingway got life down to the bone"); Melville's Moby Dick ("It might not be true with a small t, but it's true with a big T")—those and many more were the subjects he canvassed in a typical semester, in a course ostensibly about the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. If I had to sum up Marcus Orr's basic philosophy, it would be this: human beings act through institutions, and it is the institutions through which human beings act, and not the human beings themselves, that determine the society and culture we have. People come and go, he often said, but institutions persist through time. The institutions of law, of medicine, of education, of the family, of government—the quality of our institutions determines the quality of our lives, as individuals and collectively. "You can't act right in a wrong world," he often said.

The fundamental challenge confronting human beings, he believed, was how to live better, together. Dr. Orr railed against the cult of individualism, the notion that each person is unique and is his own man. Aside from the obvious extreme cases, the character and values of a person were determined not by their own will or according to their own preferences, but by the environment in which he lived—by nurture, not by nature. Dr. Orr did not believe in human nature as such, the idea that we, as human beings, are programmed to be a certain way—selfish, for instance, or hell bent on surviving. He believed virtue and values are taught, not implanted at birth, and the right virtues and values could be learned by reading the great books—the Iliad, the Republic, Hamlet, Middlemarch, Moby Dick, the Magic Mountain.

The great books were central to his idea of pedagogy. He often guided students through a "readings course," an independent exploration of the great books and what they had to teach us. He believed in reading certain things in a certain order: he always began with the Iliad and the Republic. Indeed, he was most fond of the ancient Greeks. "The Greeks had figured it all out," he insisted, "and we've been screwing it up ever since." He was attracted to their notion of the good life, to their emphasis on the stability and smooth functioning of the polis, to their attention to ethics, to their method of inquiry. "The Greeks followed an aspect of reality and saw where it led," he explained. He was constantly "pitching" books to students. Hardly a week went by when he wouldn't pull a book from between his thigh and the armrest of his chair and hand it (or sometimes toss it) to a student, with the charge to read it, and read it soon. "I think you're ready for this," he'd say of the book to the student. The book he gave me was a used, hardback copy of Personal History, by the journalist Vincent Sheean. "It's out of print, which is unfortunate, because people are starting to read it again." He especially recommended the first chapter, in which Sheean recounts his undergraduate days at Chicago and his history professor, the great Renaissance scholar Ferdinand Shevill, whom Dr. Orr admired.

Shevill's name he would write on the chalkboard in his classroom. He would also write the names of other scholars—Maitland, Mommsen, Bloch, Kantorowicz, Burkhardt, Haskins—but of no one else. It was the names of scholars only that he wrote on the board. Being in a wheelchair, he would have to reach up with his piece of chalk to as high a point as he could manage, so the class could see what he had written. He inevitably made spelling mistakes or drew a blank on the next letter, as he kept lecturing as he wrote the name; he would erase his mistakes with the sleeve of his jacket, leaving a white smudge on the fabric. His handwriting would begin legibly enough, but after four or five letters he got in a hurry to finish and put up no more than ciphers for the remaining letters.

In the summer of 1989 Dr. Orr's health took a turn for the worse. He was hospitalized at UT, and when he returned home, a special bed had been set up for him in the den of his house. The bed had a crossbar from which hung a piece of thick metal in the shape of a triangle. Dr. Orr could use the triangle as a lever to reposition his body or lift himself off the mattress for a few seconds. Home health nurses visited him daily. Women, old friends, would stop by to massage his legs and back. "Angels," he called them. That summer, one of my best friends and another protégé of Dr. Orr's, David Sample, designed a weightlifting regimen for him. David would go to Dr. Orr's house and on the patio in the backyard take him through his repetitions. He spotted Dr. Orr while he lifted ten-pound dumbbells into the air. One day I was present for one of the sessions. As Dr. Orr strained to lift the weights one more time, he began saying to himself, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can," until his two arms, wobbling, were standing straight in the air.

In September 1989, I left Memphis for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. It was Dr. Orr who was largely responsible for my enrolling in graduate studies. He loved the intellectual life, the life of the mind, almost to a fault—in fact, I would say certainly to a fault. He could not dream that any other kind of life could be satisfactory. He pushed his students hard to consider graduate school, his idea of which was, frankly, outdated. "They'll take care of you at Wisconsin," he promised. He called me once when I was in Madison. "This is Jesus," he said when I answered the phone. I complained about how much I hated graduate school, how difficult it was, how unprepared I had been. He would have none of it. "Keep working. Don't give up. Someone may have his eye on you," he offered.

I last saw Dr. Orr alive in May of 1990. I was home from graduate school and visited him at his house. It must have been a cool day, for he was dressed in a white sweater—and this time, no tie. I took a picture of him. It was a picture I never saw. I accidentally exposed the film as I tried to rewind it and take it out of the camera. In the year before his death, I had dinner at his house. Another old student of his was there, and in the evening the three of us took a walk along Audubon Drive. I was reading Wordsworth's Prelude at the time. "What do you think he meant by prelude?" Dr. Orr asked, and the three of us spent the next several minutes pondering the question. For his part, Dr. Orr was reading Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, a book about the extraordinary abundance of species during the pre-Cambrian period, millions of years ago. He looked up at the tall oaks and poplars that were black against the dark sky. He sighed. "I should have been a paleontologist," he said. "But damn it all, you can't do everything."

©2012 by Paul Dudenhefer

Dr. Marcus W. Orr

Dr. Marcus W. Orr

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