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Still Opening Doors

For 61 school years, dedicated guidance counselor Lillian Orlich has helped generations of students find their way

By B. Denise Hawkins

 

There is no separating Lillian Orlich, a Manassas, Va., high school counselor and former English and history teacher, from her career that’s spanned more than six decades. Even a colon cancer diagnosis and a year of chemotherapy could only keep this warrior from her work for three weeks. That’s because Orlich decided a long time ago to pour her all into counseling and teaching, while making students and education her centerpiece.

Her once dark hair is snow white and always coiffed. But her slightly stooped 5-foot-2 frame stands out even as Orlich keeps a surprisingly brisk, steady pace among the pride of towering teenagers in T-shirts, hoodies, and blue jeans making their way to classes and the cafeteria. But these days, the longest-serving educator and employee in Virginia’s Prince William County public school system likes to make one thing clear: Hers is not a career on the brink of sunset.
Far from it, she declares. “I have no plans to retire. Why should I? I’m having a great time.”

At 87, Orlich has outlived her entire family—mother, father, and younger sister—and has no other relatives. Although Orlich never had children, she says she claims as her own a never-ending brood of current and former students. Since coming to the school to teach in the 1950s, several generations of families have called her teacher and counselor. And she says the close circle of colleagues at Osbourn Park High School, where she works, are like kin. Sure, there were suitors and opportunities to marry, Orlich reveals, but “we never seemed to be on the same page.” Eventually, though, the sprightly Orlich did find her Mr. Right. The couple “had mutual respect for each other and just hit it off.” They got engaged and planned to travel the world for the rest of their days. But the teacher never married. Just five days before she planned to wed at age 70, Orlich says, her husband-to-be died of a heart attack.

“Sad, isn’t it,” says Orlich, sounding small. “He wanted us to travel, but that probably would have meant the end of my teaching career.”

On a crisp, fall day on the campus it’s all students, all the time. Orlich is dressed in a purple velour blazer. Underneath, a dazzling broach with hints of black and lilac stones tops her white silken blouse. It’s just visible between the collars of her jacket. Orlich’s tiny neck almost disappears. Purple, she says, is her signature color. There are touches of it all around her office. And it’s just outside her door on a table turned menagerie of neatly arranged flowers and tchotchkes, and framed photos of her as a beaming, uniformed Osbourn Navy Junior ROTC cadet.

“I’ve always felt a strong kinship to the military,” says Orlich who finally got a taste of the military life in the mid-1990s, when she enrolled in the school’s cadet training program. It was also her way of encouraging students to pursue new paths for getting to where they want to be and to lead by example.

Practical beige flats and a flowing skirt, dappled in colors, including purple, of course, complete her elegant, yet approachable look this school day. “It took me the longest time to wear slacks,” she says. Orlich didn’t buy her first pair until 1971, and now only wears them on the weekends, maybe. But during the school day, never.

“I don’t feel comfortable wearing pants to work.”

Orlich’s days, like her outfits, follow a simple pattern that has defined her life for decades. They are a part of a comfortable routine that many of her younger colleagues accept and admire, but admit that they would be hard-pressed to follow. Even when her days are full and long, packed with group counseling sessions, one-on-one student sessions, advisory and parent meetings, they are never yawns.

“With each new day, there is adventure. It’s exciting, this job,” says Orlich who thrives on doing and moving and giving on campus and in her community. While she doesn’t bother with social media and has never owned a cell phone, the educator known by her students, alumni, and colleagues as “Miss O,” could easily broker her own corporate brand. Even the license plate on her white 2003 Saturn bears the name Miss O.

But this is her wish: “I want to die here,” Orlich says sitting in her first-floor office. And the funeral would be held in the school auditorium that bears her name. Orlich’s office is a small crammed space, but for nearly 40 years as a counselor, it’s where she’s helped her students address some of their biggest problems and concerns. She says chief among them is “What am I going to do with my life after high school?”

During the school day, her office is a bright, busy, but welcoming place. There is so much on display—a four-foot cardboard cut-out of cadets in military dress; the crystal awards and silver plaques she’s won for education service and leadership, teeter among playful yellow jacket figurines (the school’s mascot), wreaths, winning basketballs, and a trove of other paraphernalia collected from the past 60-plus years she’s been at the job. But among the cute clutter are the things Orlich says she treasures most: photographs of her graduates.

She arrives at work before sunrise and usually leaves around 4:30 p.m. In bed by 11 p.m., Orlich rises early for a warm bath, a bowl of organic cereal with orange juice on it, not milk. When most others are bleary-eyed, she is up baking desserts to share with her colleagues or to take to committee meetings. When she leaves home for school, Orlich is stepping into a black morning. Her own key to Osbourn Park lets her in and long before sunrise, she eases in a side door like a ghost and slips into her desk chair, in the place she also calls her sanctuary. The extra hours, she says, gives her more time to do paperwork before students flow in, make her way through emails, and help as the school’s main office opens for business. She makes it her job, most mornings to make the coffee and greet staff and parents before the school day officially begins at 7:30 a.m.

Rising early and eating little, have become “a habit,” says Orlich who never eats lunch. “Your body tells you what to do. Eating and sleeping are important, but for me, these things are not my first priority.”

What is? “Working here in this building and with my kids.”

 

‘Always the Teacher’

Seasons earlier, at 17, Orlich was just embarking on her path to teaching and imagining the kind of educator she would become. But even before that, she “played school” with her little sister and was always the teacher.

“For me, it became more than a game my sister and I played. I always wanted to use my knowledge to help others. And I always wanted to learn.”

That simple role helped fuel a lifetime of inspiration and service in the profession.

Her parents nurtured dreamers and taught their daughters that education was a priority. Growing up, Orlich watched women becoming wives and mothers, but she “wanted to be another Amelia Earhart.”

“She struck me as daring and she fulfilled her mission to fly,” Orlich says of the pilot who instantly became her role model after she read about Earhart in The New York Times. But society’s rules for women reflected the times, dashing Orlich’s chances and those of other young women who wanted to attend West Point or learn to fly.

In her day, teaching, for women, was a noble vocation, but for Orlich, it was her “other passion after aviation.”

Orlich attended New York University (NYU) where she studied history, graduated in three years and became Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her master’s in history at NYU, too. By the time Orlich graduated at least 60 percent of the nation’s teachers were college graduates. Today, Orlich uses a decade-old scholarship that bears her name to help open doors for Osbourn Park students who want to pursue teaching. She helped establish the scholarship program and contributes to the awards, each worth $1,000.

 Orlich says she stays out of the selection process, though, preferring instead to “wait until scholarship night when the winnersare announced. I like surprises.”

The Making of an Educator and Counselor for the Ages

The 1950s brought 33 million teachers to the nation’s public schools. At age 22, Orlich was one of them. Recruited by Prince William County Virginia public school system, she took a train from Manhattan to Manassas, “I struck out on my own,” Orlich said.

She packed lightly for the journey—just a few clothes—thinking that her time in the classroom would be short lived. When Orlich arrived in Virginia from New York City, she found a “teeny-weeny” place with no stoplight and a slumbering farm town on the outskirts of the nation’s capital.

On her first day as a teacher in Manassas, Orlich wore a dress—a smart “gray jumper with embroidered flowers stitched near the top.” Her city clothes, she said, made her “stand out” in the rural community. So much so that on the first day of school, the principal introduced Orlich to students and staff as “the gal from Manhattan.”

Then, the town had no Black children in the all-White school where Orlich was assigned. Segregation relegated them to a regional high school across town, she recalls. But in 1969, nearly a decade after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision ordered the desegregation of public schools. Orlich recalls “the relatively smooth transition” that followed when Black boys and girls were allowed to attend Osbourn Park High School and sit in her classroom.

In 1957, NEA was nearing its first century when Orlich was entering the profession. She’s been an active life member since 1969. As she was establishing herself as a teacher in her first real classroom, the county was growing and shifting, bringing more students and families into an expanded public school system. With each transition and new building, Orlich followed students and staff. That was more than 60 years ago when there were 200 in that first student body. Today there are more than 2,800 enrolled in what became the newly built Osbourn Park High School in the mid-1970s.

As a new teacher, Orlich taught several courses, including European History and English. In each, she introduced an “oral learning” style when most teachers were using lectures and writing exercises. Orlich also brought a touch of higher education to her high school classroom. Using small seminar-type classes and rigorous college-level work in European History, it was a way to engage students. Now, such classes would likely be considered Advanced Placement.

For her course’s final exam, Orlich required a written dissertation and students had to present before a three-member panel that included the superintendent of schools. Harry Parrish, now mayor of Manassas City, was one of those students. Parrish remembers, “struggling sometimes” in Orlich’s class, but like his classmates, he rose to the challenge.

“Their enthusiasm for learning,” Orlich says, “was absolutely fabulous.”

As Orlich shares her student’s triumphs, she is reminded of why she wanted to teach. Generations of students have traveled through her counseling office and classroom, she says, but only the times have changed. Although they have every smart device at their disposal, today’s students, Orlich maintains, come to school with the same zeal for learning and knowledge and curiosity as those who preceded them six decades ago.

Says Orlich: “I’m just here to share with them what I’ve learned.”

As a teacher, her classroom was a place “where those who had something to say and contribute to the discourse were able to find their voice,” says Orlich. And she was there to listen. Michael Simpson, a member of Osbourn Park High School’s Class of 1969, is one of Orlich’s standouts. “European History was the best college seminar I ever had,” Simpson can still remember. “And that was in high school. Miss Orlich introduced me to a myriad of new concepts, not only history but philosophy, literature, and sociology as well.”

Having had Orlich as both his teacher and school counselor, Simpson says “she was interested in all her students as people, preparing them for the workplace.” The Retired Naval officer and Naval Academy graduate, is among the legion who correspond and still come regularly to visit her. He doesn’t get here often, but when Simpson returns to his boyhood home in Northern Virginia from Germany where he now lives, “dinner or time with Miss Orlich,” Simpson said, is always included on his agenda. Comparing her to teachers and professors he’s had in school, including Harvard and the Naval Academy, Simpson says Orlich tops the list.

“She is the first, and still most important, teacher in my life who helped me to learn to think critically, and to analyze situations.”

Until 1970, Orlich had been teaching and counseling, but that year she was told she needed to choose between her duties. So, at mid-career, Orlich became what was then called a guidance counselor, in part because she feared that the seminar courses she enjoyed teaching to only about 12 students would soon be phased out. During her 20 years on the job, Orlich had quickly become well known among students and peers and Osbourn Park High School was her home.

This belief guided her move from the classroom: “All teachers are counselors, in a way. Some do it during the day and others before or after school,” Orlich points out.

But over the years, even the name and scope for what school counselors do has drastically changed, says Pamela Gardner, director of counseling at Osbourn Park High School. Once known as guidance counselors, Gardner says her staff of eight school counselors—all female—“have to come prepared to respond to everything kids are dealing with, including things going on at home, even before they start addressing school and academic issues.”

Gardner first met Orlich nine years ago when she joined the school and remembers being “in awe” of her oldest staffer and one who was so “committed.”

“Miss Orlich’s philosophy reflects a large part of what counseling demands. It’s that high-touch, personal approach. And that goes a long way with kids who want to feel that they are more than just numbers in school.”

 

It’s nearing lunchtime and on a recent afternoon, Orlich sits down with Myles Kelly (pictured with Orlich)who is on a mission these days. Before Orlich begins her session, she’s eager to remind the college-bound senior to show up with her parents for an upcoming financial aid workshop—“It’s important,” she repeats. And she wants her to know “It’s not too early to start working on the FAFSA.” The scholarship awards students receive depend on it. Then, Orlich slides her chair close to her student, clasps her hands in her lap and leans in. She’s ready to do what Orlich does best—listen attentively and offer advice.

Orlich carries a full counseling load in addition to tackling a swirling list of other duties and serving on several campus committees. Kelly is among about 400 students Orlich supports. Before student ranks at the school began to swell in recent years, they were assigned to counselors based on their grade. Today, counselors there use a list resembling alphabet soup.

Stopping for a minute to check a thick binder, Orlich announces that she’s responsible for students whose last names begin with I through M-a-w.

Outside of a few scheduled times to visit Orlich one-on-one, Kelly says she’s comfortable seeking her counselor out as she wrestles with college choices, sometimes wonders wearily whether she’s done enough to be competitive for college admissions, and gathers assurance that she’s on track with the three AP courses Orlich recommended she take. At Osbourn Park, considered one of the county’s “high-performing schools,” about 94 percent of students graduate on time and at least 90 percent go on to two- or four-year colleges, Gardner says.

Nearing the end of her four years at Osbourn Park, Kelly credits Orlich for helping her grow. Taking her first AP course was a start, she says. “Because of Miss Orlich, so many of us have gone above and beyond what we thought we could do as students.”

It’s what Ms. Orlich does best.

 

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Published In

31-Aug-15

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