Opinion » The Rant

Remembering Marcus Orr

The story of an iconic University of Memphis professor.

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Thirty years ago November 1st, we said goodbye to the most remarkable human being I've ever known. Marcus W. Orr taught generations of Memphis State students to "make distinctions in things" so hayseeds like me would know the difference between, say, a college and a university or a cathedral and any large church.

He accelerated our education by supplying us with the answers to life's big questions. What's the purpose of life? To live better together. Who's your best friend? Your best critic. What is art? Art defines reality. What is philosophy? Philosophy takes an aspect of reality and follows it where it goes. What is the function of government? Government organizes life. What is war? The failure of civilization. What is a city? A center of work life.

Marcus W. Orr - COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS
  • Courtesy University of Memphis
  • Marcus W. Orr

The world was full of problems, and it was the responsibility of every person to pick a problem and work on it. He believed in the primacy of institutions: People come and go, he said, but institutions persist. We act through institutions — the family, schools, the economy, the built environment, the courts, hospitals and clinics — which in turn shape who we are. If the institutions are good, we will be good. If the institutions are bad, we will be bad — or as he often said about Hamlet, you can't act right in a wrong world.

Marcus Orr was born in 1925 in Texarkana, Arkansas, the son of an automobile dealer. By 1945, he was in the war. A few days before his unit stumbled onto what we now know as Dachau, he was shot in the back by a German airplane and left paralyzed from the chest down. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The men in his company honored him by naming a prisoner of war camp in Austria after him.

After he was treated in the field, he was returned stateside to a new hospital in Memphis that specialized in spinal cord injuries. Not one to get down and determined to be useful, he traveled from one hospital to another, bucking up wounded GIs. He was one of 16 GIs with spinal cord injuries who founded the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He wanted to be a neurosurgeon and even worked with a neurosurgeon at Indiana University. But medical school simply couldn't accommodate a paraplegic.

He managed to complete a bachelor's degree at Southwestern (today, Rhodes College) in Memphis. It so happened that under the aegis of Adlai Stevenson, the University of Illinois had made their campus accessible to wheelchairs. So he went to Illinois, where he earned a Ph.D. in history, specializing in the Italian Renaissance. After graduating, he joined the history faculty at Memphis State and set about making the campus wheelchair accessible.

His lectures were intellectual grand tours. A discussion of Chartres could easily lead to a discussion of Goethe and Henry Adams and Ernest Hemingway, then somehow to a mosaic in some Memphis library, before returning to Chartres. He always emphasized the work of scholars in recovering the past — Frederick Maitland, Bishop Stubbs, Gibbon, Marc Bloch, Ernst Kantorowicz. Indeed, the only names he wrote on the board were the names of historians.

He wasn't perfect. He was sexist, calling the women in his classes "angel face." His knowledge of graduate school was 30 years out of date, and he overvalued life in the academy. He had no patience for psychology — work, he was convinced, was the answer to any problems one might have. On that score, he might have been right.

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."

Paul Dudenhefer is a writer and editor who lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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