CNCounty News

Roy Orr remembered as family focused, NACo-driven

Dallas County, Texas Commissioner Roy Orr served as NACo president from 1981-1982

Roy Orr with Tarrant County, Texas Judge Glen Whitley at the 2010 Annual Conference. Photo by David Hathcox

Dallas County, Texas Commissioner and NACo Past President Roy Orr’s memoirs may have been titled Plain Vanilla, but perhaps a better summation for his life might be Family Matters.

Orr, who died Jan. 29 at 87, reportedly couldn’t finish a conversation without asking about someone’s family, which NACo Past President Glen Whitley saw firsthand to amusing results.

“I had gotten to know Roy when I was a county commissioner and I went to visit my mom in Dallas,” he said. “I mentioned his name to her and it turned out Roy had been my commissioner when I was growing up and he knew my parents.”

Orr’s wife, Janice, died two months to the day before him.

Where there were no formal family relationships, Orr created them.

“He was a goodwill ambassador and got to know his colleagues all over the country, and he was a catalyst for NACo being known as a big family,” said former NACo Executive Director Bernie Hillenbrand. “He made sure we all stuck together, regardless of what state they came from.”

Whitley, like Ken Mayfield, another NACo past president, considers Orr a mentor who encouraged them to become active in the organization and pursue leadership roles. Mayfield was a successor to Orr’s commission seat, making them the first pair to serve as NACo president from the same county district.

“He taught me that in the end, you’re the only one who can make a decision and you have to do what is right, but along the way you have to listen to all sides,” Mayfield said. “Otherwise you aren’t doing what’s right.”

Whitley remembered Orr as a man of great conviction.

“He was extremely loyal, someone of high integrity,” he said. “If he told you something, you could bet he was going to stick to it.

“He might disagree with you on something but he wasn’t going to hold it against you. Then when the debate was over, he’d go back to being your best friend.”

Orr’s political career started on the DeSoto School Board and as the city’s mayor before he was appointed to the County Commission in 1972.  His memoir recounts taking an average of 72 phone calls a day and returning many more as a commissioner. He found the county to be his ideal level of government, “the form of government closest to the people.”

“I tried to make county government not have the image of a country boy and have the image of a professional organization,” he wrote. “The people in county government are professional and worthy of respect.”

He served as NACo’s president in 1980 – 1981, at the tail end of Hillenbrand’s tenure.

“Roy was always there and always supportive, and always critical when ideas were being discussed because he wanted to see the best results for the organization,” he said. “He was a strong proponent of having elected county commissioners making the decisions for NACo, not the county staff, even though we represent the public health officials and others.

“That’s why we are as strong of an organization as we have been.”

Though Orr called himself a “Texas Democrat and a national Republican,” he served Presidents Jimmy Carter — on the board of the President’s Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations — and Ronald Reagan — on the Advisory Committee on Federalism.

While NACo president, Orr oversaw the groundbreaking for the First Street office building, and started the sponsorship of what is now the Nationwide Retirement Solutions deferred compensation program, which allowed for portable retirement savings for county officials.

He also made a visit to China with 29 other county officials, where they met with local government leaders. He defended the use of county funds to be a NACo member to the Dallas media.

“It’s an emotional drag to lose him,” Hillenbrand said.

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