A Life: Ruth Elaine Orr; ‘She was the friend of a lifetime’

  • Ruth Orr performs as the soloist in a wedding in 1984. She was a church soloist for about 40 years, performed with the Christmas Revels, and was part of a five-woman group called Pass Time with Good Company that performed on early English instruments. She played piano and several old English instruments and sang. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Ruth and David Orr in the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl offices in 1970. Ruth ran the office for years and David was at various times General Chairman and Director of Publicity. The annual all-star high school football game raises money for the Shriners Hospitals for Children. (Family photograph)

  • Ruth and David Orr at their Blueberry Hill home in Hanover, N.H., around 2008. (Family photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 5/22/2022 9:39:22 PM
Modified: 5/22/2022 9:37:27 PM

LEBANON — From her earliest years on a farm out West, Ruth Orr was instilled with life lessons on the value of hard work, family, caring for others and always doing your best.

Before she was old enough to attend school, Orr and her siblings worked all day in the fields, tending to the family’s sheep herd on their Colorado farm. Life became harder when Orr’s mother died at age six. Two years later she contracted polio on the left side of her body.

“She had a lot of challenges,” said her son, Jamie, a dance instructor who lives in Enfield. “But she never felt herself a victim despite those challenges. Even though they didn’t have a lot of money, she never at any time considered that they were poor. I really learned a lot about perspective from my mother. She just never felt sorry for herself.”

Orr, who passed away in January at the age of 86, came to the Upper Valley in the late 1950s with her husband, David, not long after he accepted a reporting job with the Valley News. Over the years, Orr forged lifelong friendships with many and was well known as a gifted singer and musician, a fabulous cook and entertainer and talented gardener with limitless determination for whatever task was at hand.

“She said her father was strict but from him she learned great discipline and organization,” said her friend, Sharon Haynes Juntunen. “Ruth never gave an inch. Whatever she did, she did to perfection. There was no sloppiness in Ruth.”

Above all else, family and friends said Orr cared deeply about others, always asking about their lives and rarely talking about her own.

“She was a person of so many qualities,” said Haynes Juntunen, who lived in the Upper Valley for about 25 years before moving to northern Michigan in the mid-1990s. “She did a lot of caregiving for people in their later years and I helped some of the time so I know how much she did but she never said much about it. She was always thinking of others, very unselfish.”

Orr’s daughter, Kathy, also recalls her mother’s thoughtfulness toward others.

“She was always doing things for other people,” said Kathy, who lives in California. “She took care of an older lady after she retired. She was there for that lady whenever she needed something.”

Kathy also remembers her mother’s seemingly limitless energy and desire to be always doing something, whether swimming regularly or tending her flower gardens on warm summer evenings at the family home on Blueberry Hill in Hanover.

“She was always active; always wanted to push herself. She was very determined to do everything right,” said Kathy.

At Christmas time, Orr turned her energy level up a few notches.

“She would work all day, come home and make dinner and then start making cookies,” Kathy said. “And she would bake until midnight, get up the next day for work, come home and do it over again. She was a wonderful cook and wonderful baker.”

The cookies would be shared at Christmas parties, given away or put in the freezer to enjoy year round, said Kathy.

Another close friend, Betsey Barnes, said Orr’s outlook on life was infectious.

“You would never know that Ruth had suffered early in her life,” Barnes said. “She was so loving, kind and was always a lot of fun.

“What I particularly enjoyed about Ruth was her intelligence and then her laugh and her wonderful sense of humor,” said Barnes, who had dinner one night a week with Orr when they lived at The Woodlands in Lebanon. “That laugh is what I hear now. I go by her room and my throat tightens. I miss her terribly.”

After Orr contracted polio — which her son said she believes she got when the family went to a fair — her father had difficulty finding quality and affordable care and eventually sold the farm and moved the family to Portland, Ore., to be closer to the Shriner’s Hospital. Shriner’s is where Orr regained her ability to walk.

Starting over in Portland, Orr’s father found work where he could and because of the family’s financial situation, Orr spent a couple of years in foster care, where, despite her disability, she was required to work. Her father eventually established himself as a contractor, building homes in the Portland area and the family’s finances improved.

“He was very industrious,” Jamie said about his grandfather. “He started buying tax lots and building homes. He was totally self-made and my mother picked up that can-do attitude.”

Even when things improved for the family, Orr continued working when she wasn’t in school. She did chores, helped prepare dinner and worked around the house.

“It was constant work with my mom,” said Kathy. “It was all she knew.”

It was never a burden but a blessing to Orr to be able to be working on something and giving it her best.

“She was very determined to do everything right,” Kathy said.

When Ruth and David, who met on a blind date and were married in 1959, built a home on Blueberry Hill, Jamie said his mother painted all the rooms and all the doors in the house.

“She taught me how to use tools and I became a woodworker,” Jamie said. “I learned that can-do attitude from my mother.”

Though she seemed to be always on the go, Orr put a premium on family time

“We always had dinner together and she got up and would make us breakfast,” said Kathy. “She was a loving mother.”

Kathy said her mother went to work outside the home when she was about eight. For a time she was at the local Shriner’s office helping David, who died in 2015, with the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl Game and later spent 25 years working in the superintendent’s office of the Dresden School District. Orr also helped a lot behind the scenes when David, a Dartmouth graduate, worked for years as the college’s alumni organizer. Jamie recalls alumni parties at the house with 100 or more enjoying “tons and tons of hors d’oeuvre made by my mother.”

During her childhood, Orr was surrounded by music as her father sang and played the harmonica and the children played the piano.

“Whenever there was a family gathering, there was a lot of music,” said Jamie. “That is where she got her love of music and that was probably her number one hobby her whole life.”

In her later years, she took voice and piano lessons, Kathy said.

“She loved to play the piano and she played beautifully.”

Orr became a soloist at the First Church of Christ Scientist in Hanover and was a longtime member of area singing groups including the Christmas Revels and Pastime with Good Company, a small group of women who played early English instruments and dressed in Renaissance clothing while performing around the region in senior centers and similar venues.

“She had an exquisite soprano voice and was a fine musician,” said Haynes Juntunen, who sang with Orr. “We had a lot of enjoyment sharing music together.”

Chris Dow, another longtime friend, said Orr’s singing was special.

“When she did solos at church, I don’t think she realized the love she put into the presentation,” Dow said. “Her singing was so spiritually uplifting, straight from her heart.”

Dow said her friend loved bringing a smile to others and marveled she could make things almost look easy when it came to entertaining at the Orr home.

“Ruth hosted some of the most elegant dinner parties and church gatherings I have ever been to,” Dow said. “So organized, so gracious, so welcoming and excellent food all prepared by Ruth.”

Her talent as a gardener was impressive as well.

Barnes, her friend at The Woodlands, said Orr had a special talent for creating patterns of plantings that showed a true understanding of the beauty of combining flowers with locally grown plants.

Like most others who had known Orr, Haynes Juntunen called her “a friend of a lifetime.

“In today’s world, if you can find a friend like her it would be one in several million.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com

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