In an age when politicians aren’t always public servants and vice versa, we honor the life and career of Wyc Orr, one who filled both roles ably.
Orr, a Gainesville attorney and former state representative, died Wednesday at age 67. He was a key local figure in an era when common sense and serving the people meant more than loyalty to a party banner or advocacy to a rigid ideology.
Growing up in the South Georgia town of Tifton, E. Wycliffe Orr was one of those kids who seemingly was good at everything, a star at academics and sports. He graduated with honors and first in his business school class from Auburn University, then later earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee, where he also graduated first in his class.
He practiced law as a member of the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, then for 43 years in private practice.
But his greatest mark locally may have been while serving two terms in the state House from 1989-1993. He did not do so quietly.
This was still a time when Republicans were rare and Democrats were not always liberal in their political leanings. Orr, like most who served with him, was a moderate on most issues and less so on others. But one thing friend and foe could say was that he believed government should be transparent and accountable.
Take, for instance, his unsuccessful push in 1990 to limit the terms of the House speaker and lieutenant governor. Orr felt at the time that both men — who belonged to his party — held too much sway over legislation for too long. In particular, House Speaker Tom Murphy ruled his chamber with an iron hand, often silencing minority opinions and lawmakers.
Orr proposed a bill to limit each office to eight years. The idea was resoundingly rejected, but though Orr earned the scorn of party leaders, he won respect from both sides of the aisle and among his constituents for his willingness to take them on.
During his time in the Capitol, he also advocated a change in at-large voting for city elections and ethics law changes to increase disclosure for lobbyists.
He ran for Congress in 1992 after longtime Rep. Ed Jenkins retired, his low-budget effort placing third in the Democratic primary won by then-Democratic foe Nathan Deal. After that, Orr returned to his law practice in Gainesville.
Even without a political title, Orr continued to have an effect on public policy. One of his key roles was as a statewide advocate for funding indigent defense, which provides all persons accused of crimes with capable legal counsel.
Orr was one of the leaders in the push to create a state system of public defense offices, administered by the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, to replace the previous system of having private attorneys provide the service. For his efforts, he was honored recently with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Many consider indigent defense a necessary evil but also a burdensome public need, tax money funneled toward legal aid for criminals. But for our legal system to work as it should, all those facing charges in court deserve a competent lawyer to see they receive proper justice. And those punished by society for their crimes should be given every option the law allows, even if they can’t afford a pricey attorney on their own.
Orr fought hard to see the state’s system of providing lawyers was effective and fully funded. It always was a tough battle, even more so during lean economic times.
He passed his passion for the law on to his children: Daughter Kris Brown served as his law partner, and son Wycliffe “Cliff” Jr. is an investment manager in Atlanta.
His other accomplishments include president of the Hall County Unit of the American Cancer Society, co-founder and first president of the Chattahoochee American Inn of Court (renamed in 2013 as the E. Wycliffe Orr, Sr. American Inn of Court) and past president of the Gainesville-Northeastern Circuit Bar Association.
More recently, he served on the board of Common Cause, a nonpartisan, open government advocacy group that reflected his lifelong goal of transparent, ethical public service.
And he recently put his money where his mouth was by heading up a fundraising effort for the Gainesville-Hall County Meals on Wheels campaign left short-funded by government cuts. His efforts helped raise some $70,000 to keep the program going with matching government funds, providing much-needed food and companionship to shut-in seniors.
Those who knew Orr well found him to be as engaging and personable as he was dedicated to his beliefs. Even those on the other side called him friend, and he never let such arguments descend into ugly vitriol. He was a Southern gentleman of great integrity and intellect, traits our public leaders could always use more of.
Wyc Orr’s embrace of public service over personal gain made his community better, as a dedicated attorney, grass-roots lawmaker, citizen volunteer and Gainesville icon. We are all better for his time with us, and we offer his close friends and family our sincere condolences in his memory.