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Arthur Orr with a family in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, in front of the first home built in Bangladesh by Habitat for Humanity International in 1999. After years of work and bureacratic haggling, Orr established Habitat in Bangladesh. First Presbyterian Church of Decatur sponsored the home.
Courtesy photo
Arthur Orr with a family in Mymensingh, Bangladesh, in front of the first home built in Bangladesh by Habitat for Humanity International in 1999. After years of work and bureacratic haggling, Orr established Habitat in Bangladesh. First Presbyterian Church of Decatur sponsored the home.

A Wild Card Goes To Montgomery
Arthur Orr
is no Ken-doll conservative

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com· 340-2435

At first blush, he’s the Ken doll of conservative Republicans. Arthur Orr, who recently won an ugly battle for state Senate against Democrat Bobby Day, has the usual credentials.

Well-groomed guy, 42, with a pretty wife and a promising 5-year-old son. Graduated from University of Alabama Law School, made partner at Decatur’s premier law firm. Now a corporate attorney at Cook’s Pest Control. Active in his church.

The Orr family is prominent in these parts. Arthur’s dad is the Bud of Bud’s Chevron, which has stations that sprinkle Arthur’s district. Family members had a stake in the wildly successful Decatur start-up First American Bank.

Dig that far, and he looks like the other Ken dolls that line the shelves in Washington and Montgomery.

If that’s all the special interests saw before supporting him, they may be in for a rude surprise. He’s focused on his district, but it seems unlikely that he can forget a lifetime of service to the Third World poor. He calls himself a conservative, but the man who will represent District 3 beginning in January is better described as a wild card.

Read his pre-election posters, and you’ll learn little about how his unusual history will shape his coming politics. Conservative, Christian, believer in economic freedom and supporter of small business. Not much about Haiti, Nepal or Bangladesh.

Turn to Page 2 of the resume, and Orr looks less like the stereotypical Alabama politician. When he was growing up in Danville in the ’70s, Orr’s efforts lacked the Ken-doll sparkle.

“We grew up being involved with the boys at the (Alabama Sheriffs’) Boys’ Ranch. We used to work on the ranch for free — my dad made us work there in the summer — so we’d bale hay, slop hogs, hoe the garden, feed the livestock, all with the boys,” Orr said. “When we were old enough to drive, we worked delivering oil barrels (for the family business).”

In 1984, his resume slid even further from the norm. Forgoing the capitalist dream resident in a summer at the family business, Orr applied for a missionary position in Haiti.

“My job was to drive a truck throughout the island, delivering supplies to their outposts,” Orr recalled. “I’ll never forget the slum area in Port au Prince. Just unbelievable poverty. Families living in rooms half the size of this office.”

A summerlong mission trip during college, of course, could have been a mere blip on the radar of business and political success. Page 1 of Orr’s resume suggests as much, with law school at The University of Alabama following in 1986.

But with his juris doctorate crumpled in his back pocket, Orr in 1989 took an unforgivable detour in any path toward Ken-doll perfection. He signed up for the Peace Corps and landed in the village of Khandbari in Nepal.

“I wasn’t married and had no children,” Orr recalls. “I guess I figured if I was ever going to do it, that was the time.”

orr2.jpg - 49380 Bytes
Daily photo by John Godbey
Arthur Orr, newly-elected state senator for District 3, keeps this painting — of a Bangladesh boy crushing rock into gravel — in his office as a reminder of his experiences in that country with Habitat for Humanity International. Those experiences will help shape the self-described conservative as he takes on a Montgomery bureaucracy.
Orr’s new legislative district has pockets of poverty, but not like what he saw and lived during his 27 months in war-torn Nepal. Dirt floors, dirt walls. No running water. Supplies had to be hiked in to the Hindu village from a road 2½ days away, and cooking was on open fires. Rice for breakfast. Rice for lunch. Rice and potatoes for dinner.

“Some of the kids were brilliant,” recalled Orr, “but I knew their future was going to be tough.”

Especially the girls.

“The fathers married off the children in arranged marriages,” Orr said. “Some were getting married off at 13 or 14. But if they’re out of the house, Daddy doesn’t have to pay for them.”

And their futures were unchangeably set. These girls had no chance at an education. Their destiny was one of hard work in a harsh world, creating more children who would face the same.

That didn’t sit well with Orr, who had quickly learned their language, Nepali — and has since learned Bangla and Spanish — and he could not ignore the misery. “My idea was to start a scholarship fund,” Orr recalled. “I sent letters back here to family members explaining what was going on, explaining these village girls were going to be relegated to a life they didn’t choose.”

Money started flowing back to a village that didn’t have much. Not lots of money, but the girls of Khandbari didn’t need much to get schooling that would change their lives.

That scholarship program — Orr still helps manage it, along with Khandbari locals — has sent 50 children to college in the last 16 years.

“They’ve been provided an opportunity to get out of the village, go out on the road — these kids had never seen a car before — go to the (nearest) town and go to college there,” Orr said.

“I got an e-mail recently from a former student; she was a sixth-grader when I met her. Smart as a tack. I designated her to participate in the program.”

That sixth-grader is now a young woman. She is a nurse, lives in London and sends money back home.

Enough’s enough, though, even for a man as committed to mission work as Orr. He finished his stint with the Peace Corps and came home, taking a job at the law firm of Harris Caddell & Shanks. Trading service to impoverished Hindu schoolchildren for service to Decatur’s corporate elite.

It didn’t last.

After a successful five-year run at Harris Caddell, he resigned his lucrative partnership to join Habitat for Humanity International, and we’re not talking nailing shingles in Northwest Decatur. His assignment: to create a Habitat presence in Bangladesh. The stint lasted from 1997 to 2001.

The legislative legacy Orr took from Nepal was the importance of education. He saw its transforming power starkly as girls with no hope and no control of their lives leveraged education into self-sufficiency and happiness.

Maybe the contrasts are subtler in Alabama, the opportunities that education creates less dramatic, but he insists the lessons he learned in Nepal hold true here.

“We’ve got to have a good education system,” he said, couching it in terms that would work on a fiscal-conservative’s campaign sign. “If we don’t have a good education system, we’re not going to grow economically because businesses won’t locate here. If education’s not the major role of state government, it’s one of them.”

The lessons of Bangladesh were of a different sort. If you think Montgomery is riddled with bureaucracy, Orr said, you ain’t seen nothing.

“Welcome to the developing-world bureaucracy,” Orr said. “How do you do it without bribes? The big guy is going to make you wait, show you who’s boss. You’re going to cool your heels for three hours out there in the waiting room.”

Patience and persistence, Orr said, were the only way to reach the goal. Those are traits he’ll need in abundance in Montgomery.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Orr said. “I’ll just need to keep working it. When water goes downhill and it hits an obstacle, it just goes around it. That’s how I perceive I’ll need to handle Montgomery. Don’t lose my cool. Be patient, but be persistent.”

Orr said the only way he can tap the benefit of his Third World lessons is by keeping his purpose at the forefront of his mind. In Bangladesh, while waiting yet another day to meet the minister of housing, or sitting yet another hour in a traffic-snarled taxi, he had a mantra. “I’m here to help people build houses for the poor. I’m here to help people build ...”

Montgomery mantra

His mantra in Montgomery, he said, will be “I’m here to help my district move ahead.”

“I’m certainly not going to be there for the meals or the lobbyists or the perquisites of title,” Orr said. “The purpose is to serve, whether it’s trying to get Habitat into Bangladesh or a new sewer into Somerville.”

Prayer for the member of First Bible Church has always been central, but its applicability to Montgomery hit home not in Haiti, Bangladesh or Nepal, but in Hartselle. Attending a retirement function for the man he will follow in the Senate, Tommy Ed Roberts, D-Hartselle, he was struck by Roberts’ comments.

“Tommy Ed got up there and said, ‘Every day I got up in Montgomery to go to the state House, I began it on my knees, praying the Lord would help me do what’s right this day, would help me to discern the right path.’ I will approach my days the same way,” Orr said.

Echoing a verse in Genesis 12, Orr said God has blessed his life and the lives of his family members. His responsibility, he said, is to use his own blessings to be a blessing to others.

“I feel that’s my call, to help others,” said Orr, gazing discreetly at a picture of a child in Nepal. “I don’t do a perfect job at it. I fail miserably at times. But I think it’s incumbent on us to help others, whether they’re on the other side of the planet or right here in Morgan County.”

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