Orris honored as top volunteer
By ANDREW MCGINN
For Don Orris, the path to the prestigious ABC Award was paved with bricks.
Lots and lots of bricks — 22,700 bricks, to be exact.
After laying that many brick pavers this past fall at the Thomas Jefferson Gardens, it’s tough to tell whether Orris, 61, retired from the local hardware store that still bears his name or else just switched careers late in life.
For that effort and more, Orris was honored Monday with the 2013 Above and Beyond the Call (ABC) Volunteer Achievement Award at the Greene County Chamber and Development annual meeting.
“Don Orris has been, and will be, on site, leading the way,” Chris Henning, executive director of the chamber, said during her presentation of the award.
In accepting the ABC Award, a visibly touched Orris on Monday night repeated one particular line multiple times, almost subconsciously.
“You get back,” he said, “what you put into it.”
Orris had the good fortune five years ago to retire from his store at a time when Greene County seemed to be coming to a crossroads.
“So many things have come to a head,” he said Monday, “and they’re all positive.”
“It is a time when you can make a difference,” he implored.
A Jefferson native, Orris was just a month shy of retirement when a project took root to honor Doreen Wilber, the late Jefferson archer who famously won gold at the 1972 Olympics.
For Orris, honoring Wilber, his former archery teacher, was personal.
But in retirement, he also was able to throw himself into the work that needed to be done.
After two years of planning and labor, a bronze statue honoring Wilber was dedicated along Lincoln Way in 2011.
Along the way, helping lay the 800 to 900 bricks needed for the statue’s plaza, a path was laid for his next project.
Even before the Wilber project was finished, Orris was approached about helping with the Thomas Jefferson Gardens at the corner of Lincoln Way and Chestnut Street, which will serve to honor Jefferson’s namesake — the Founding Father and “the patron saint of rural America” — once complete.
He signed on, devoting himself to overseeing the site’s construction.
He estimated he puts in about 40 hours each week.
“I always wanted to work outside,” he explained Monday. “Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.”
He’s been soaked by the rain, baked by the sun and then chilled by the wind.
“I’ve seen about every part of Iowa weather that I can handle,” he reflected Tuesday, the morning after his big win at the chamber meeting.
A 1970 graduate of Jefferson High School, Orris in many ways was among the first of what’s become a steady migration of young people back to town.
Of course, that was 37 years ago.
“There was hardly anybody my age back in town,” he recalled.
It was 1977. He’d gone off to teach school, but decided to come back to become a partner in his dad’s hardware store.
Jefferson embraced the 25-year-old former math and physics teacher, seizing on the new blood.
“I became the chamber of commerce president fairly quickly,” he said, “because there was hardly anyone who hadn’t done it more than once.”
Orris bought his father’s hardware store in 1980.
Volunteering, he said, is his way to repay the community for its support of his family’s hardware store going back to 1950.
“It’s my opportunity to give back,” he said.
Declining school enrollment in recent years has taken a psychological toll on the community, he said, but it’s time to embrace what we have, or soon will have.
Jefferson, he said, can be a destination for visitors and a permanent home for new families.
“This is a really crucial time for us to step forward,” he said. “We have an opportunity to change our mind-set.”
And, yes, Monday night’s ABC Award came as a surprise.
“When they started talking about the bricks,” he said, “that was the tipper.”