Photo of John Orr.
John Orr, seen here in 1982, proved to be an influential figure for USC Dornsife and the university in his three decades at USC. (Photo: Courtesy of the USC Digital Libraries/Wendy Malecki.)

Religion professor’s long career at USC helped launch some of the university’s most distinctive programs

John Orr was instrumental in the founding of the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture, the USC Family of Schools and the Thematic Option program.
ByMargaret Crable

Professor Emeritus of Religion John Orr was a continuous presence on the USC campus for nearly 30 years. He helped usher in a number of programs that define the university’s commitment to the surrounding community and to academic curiosity. Orr passed away on Feb. 25 at 89.

For Donald Miller, Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Orr’s decades-long work at USC reflected one of his core values.

“Loyalty was a prime value for John. I think this came from a philosopher that he read and valued, Josiah Royce. Royce wrote a lot about loyalty. The basic idea of loyalty is, if you’re going to have a community, people need to be loyal to each other and to the values of that community,” says Miller, who is also director of strategic initiatives at the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC).

Academic creativity

Orr was born in 1933 in Long Beach, California, where he attended Woodrow Wilson High School. He graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1955 with a degree in philosophy, followed by a bachelor’s degree in divinity from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1958. In 1965, he was awarded a PhD from Yale Divinity School.

He married Thelma Hodson in 1961, after they met at a New Year’s Eve Party, and the two remained married until his death. They had two sons, John and Steve, both USC alumni. Steve predeceased Orr in 2014.

His academic career began at Texas A&M University, where he founded the philosophy department. Texas just wasn’t home, however, so when an opening at the USC School of Religion appeared in 1967, he jumped at the chance to return to the West Coast. At USC Dornsife, he was appointed full professor and, in 1970, became director of the School of Religion.

He developed a graduate program in social ethics and published several books, including The Radical Suburb(Westminster Press, 1970). The book argued that America’s suburban neighborhoods were producing a totally new kind of person, whom he dubbed the “expansive man.”

“During the 1960s, there were a lot of notions about radicalism at a political level. Well, John was intrigued with the suburbs as radical places,” says Miller. “He always saw things differently; that was part of his creativity. To see radicalism in the suburbs would be a good example.”

Miller met Orr while an undergraduate at USC Dornsife taking Orr’s course on the New Testament. Orr’s individuality shone through there as well. “He sang the class these Christmas carols that were ‘demythologized,’ meaning that they took away all the supernatural elements of a Christmas story and put them in a very contemporary mode,” remembers Miller who was tickled that a professor would sing to a class.

In the mid-1970s, Orr was a co-investigator for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant that launched the university’s Thematic Option program, which continues today. Each year, some 200 undergraduates go through “T.O” classes, which closely explore and analyze the canon of great literature and philosophy, thanks in part to Orr’s work.

Politics of the spirit

In 1981, Orr moved to the USC Rossier School of Education where he first was interim dean and then permanent dean. Under his leadership, the school partnered with the USC Suzanne-Dworak Peck School of Social Work and the university at large to launch the Inter-Professional Initiative, the predecessor to the USC Family of Schools. The program now helps provide quality education to some 17,000 students across 15 schools in the neighborhoods surrounding the USC campuses.

Two people hug with another person in the background.
John Orr hugs a member of the Lighthouse Community Outreach in Los Angeles in 1996, the year before he retired from USC Dornsife. (Photo: Courtesy of the USC Digital Libraries/ Wendy Malecki.)

Orr returned to USC Dornsife in 1988, this time as University Professor, a distinction given to a select number of faculty.

In May 1992, the acquittal of four white police officers who had brutally assaulted Rodney King, a Black man, during a traffic stop, enraged many in Los Angeles. The city erupted into a series of protests and riots, which lasted nearly a week.

In the midst of the commotion, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jefferson Park emerged as a beacon of calm. It opened its doors to host dialogue among the community, media and public officials. Its preacher, Rev. Cecil Murray, delivered a memorable sermon calling for peace.

Miller, by then a professor of religion at USC Dornsife, caught some of the sermon on TV. He was struck by this intersection of religion and civic activism and thought, “There’s a research project here.”

He teamed up with Orr on a study eventually titled “Politics of the Spirit: Religion and Multiethnicity in Los Angeles,” which they published in 1994. Orr and Miller spent months attending meetings and events in areas of the city most affected by the uprising, speaking to locals, preachers and civic leaders about their efforts to create a more just and peaceful metropolis.

The report attracted the interest of the James Irvine Foundation, which asked the two if they’d be interested in starting a research center. This led to the creation of the CRCC at USC Dornsife, now a core program for the College. The center advances understanding of religion in society and helps faith leaders work toward positive social change.

Common man

Orr retired in 1998, but he wasn’t done with USC, yet. He remained at CRCC as a senior fellow and also joined the USC Retired Faculty Association (RFA), serving as president for a year. And, he continued his devotion to Trojan football.

“From his earliest years at USC to his final days, a time spanning 55 years, he and my mother were USC Football season ticket holders,” says his son John Orr. “They spent decades tailgating with family and friends. As time passed, more friends and family members across generations would travel from far and near to be together at the tailgates, creating what would become some of his most enduring memories.”

Orr also expanded his art practice. He’d produced paintings and sculptures inspired by the Pop Art tradition for decades and in retirement he took up photography. He explored street photography and snapped shots of L.A.’s distinctive yet humble locations, like oil derricks placed in the center of shopping areas.

He also won a Douglas Basil Award from the RFA to fund a photography project at the Pasadena Village retirement community. His photos captured life at home for those in the village, showcasing the vibrancy of older adults.

There was an overlapping ethos in both his academic work and his art, says Miller. “He was interested in the culture of everyday people. That’s probably why he was more interested in social ethics than philosophical ethics. He was really interested in everyday moral discourse. In spite of his Yale PhD and so forth, John was really a man of the people.”