Joan Orr, Air Force Spouse

The Air Force Spouse of the Year Award is named after the late Joan Orr, wife of the former Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr. Mrs. Orr was a rare inspirational leader. Joan began her love for dance in the late 1930s teaching dance classes at local churches and schools. She was the President of the Pasadena Arts Council in 1977 and 1978. During her tenure, she sought to bring out the best in others and believed that cultural arts were essential to the community. Her connections and passion lead her to chair the Lewitzky Dance Foundation. 

Her husband Verne Orr was appointed as the Secretary of the Air Force in 1981. Her husband recalls during their visit to over 100 bases she never went to museums or shopping, “she was always on duty”. While her husband peered inside aircraft hangers and inspected flight lines Joan Orr visited hospitals and childcare centers meeting with Air Force wives and families. She was sensitive to their lonely and transient lifestyles and lent a supportive ear to their problems. During the Christmas holiday, the Orrs traveled to remote bases to visit service members who were away from their families. Verne Orr’s tenure was cut short when Joan was diagnosed as having ALS in June 1985. After doctors predicted she had only three years to live they returned to Pasadena. In the Fall of 1985, she walked and began utilizing crutches, and a month later had to use a wheelchair. Several months later a former student suggested teaching dance classes. Mrs. Orr realized she had something to give and the willingness in her heart to give it. Orr’s disease affected her voice first and then other muscles. Her microphone was replaced with a slate where she jotted instructions. Even though she suffered from the deliberating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease she never canceled a class. Orr taught two weeks before her death. She was determined to make every moment count. The Air Force honored her by initiating the Joan Peak Orr Award to be given annually to an Air Force spouse who makes an outstanding contribution to the service. Joan Orr died seven months after her daughter presented the first Joan Orr Spouse of the Year Award in 1989. The award is still being presented today by recognizing the significant accomplishment made by military spouses.

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