AUSTIN, Texas >> As parents took first-day-of-school photos of their children this year, Patricia Orr did the same for her husband, Terry. Except Orr is not entering first, second or third grade; at 81 years old, he’s beginning a master’s program at the University of Texas, with a textbook-laden backpack and all.
Orr obtained his second undergraduate degree from the University of Texas in 2017, about 55 years after completing engineering degrees at Texas A&M. In that span of time, he enlisted in the Army in the 1960s, initially stationed in Virginia, then in Greenland, where he worked as a research engineer drilling into ice caps; he spent his career working in marine construction and oil operations, notching eight years in Saudi Arabia; and in 1992 he moved to Bastrop, Texas, where he served as the town’s mayor between 2008 and 2014.
This week Orr’s insatiable curiosity brings him back to another year at UT, where he’ll spend his 82nd birthday in the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.
“It beats sitting around cussing the government every day,” Orr joked. “That’s the other alternative.”
The octogenarian has already grown accustomed to being in classrooms full of students young enough to be his grandchildren. During his undergraduate years, which he spent studying classical archaeology at UT’s College of Liberal Arts, he taught himself how to learn from his peers.
“You don’t want to be the old guy that talks all the time — old people, they want to talk all the time. And you don’t want to be the old guy that knows everything,” Orr said. “These people know a whole lot more than I do.”
Adam Rabinowitz, an associate professor in the Department of Classics, recalled the unique perspective Orr added to the classroom. Rabinowitz had Orr in a Greek archaeology class and said he deliberately treated Orr just like other students: calling on him for questions, assigning him randomly to student groups, and graded him intensely. But Orr brought a level of charm and insight to discussions that only 80 years of life experience can supply.
One year Rabinowitz was teaching a lesson on the ancient eruption of the Greek Santorini Volcano. The Santorini eruption has been treated by scientists as a fixed chronological marker of the bronze age that has historically been known to have happened in 1525 B.C., Rabinowitz said. But 21st-century discoveries challenged that date using carbon dating and examinations of ice cores that point to an eruption date between 1620 and 1600 B.C.
“I was talking about the ice cores (in class), and Terry said, ‘You know, I was on the expedition in Greenland that took that ice core,’” Rabinowitz recalled. “I was like, no way! And the next class he brought in a photo of himself taking this ice core out of the Greenland ice cap.”
Orr’s Greenland expedition at Camp Century provided some of the evidence that has been used to revise historic climate data, Rabinowitz said. In that moment, as in many others, he was a living specimen of history.
“With Terry it was exactly the right balance of a different sense of perspective and a kind of quiet wisdom that the 19-year-olds in the class might have been lacking, and a willingness to learn and be open to things,” he said. “I haven’t had anybody like that in my classes.”
For two following summers, Rabinowitz took Orr and a handful of students to Romania to conduct archaeological excavations, introducing Orr to a world that has enthralled him ever since. His graduate work will focus on Romanian culture, history and archaeology, Orr said. He’s spent the last year poring through workbooks to learn the language.
Tom Palaima, an Armstrong Professor of Classics at UT, saw Orr through an entirely different lens. Palaima served as an academic facilitator for Warrior Chorus, a 10-week workshop that brings together a diverse group of veterans to study classic literature to help them cope with their own wartime trauma. The veterans craft performances over the course of the workshop that help them relate their own military experiences to those depicted in the wartime writings of ancient Greek authors.
“He was the one who made the group function extremely well,” Palaima said. “Terry was the guy who would keep everything at the right level and ask good questions.”
Both professors agreed on one point: Orr’s enrollment in the university was not impressive just because of his advanced age; it demonstrates how learning doesn’t always need to be tied to career gains or economic advancement. Education, they said, should not be treated as a commodity.
“The problem in American society, everything has to have a practical value, and you’re defined by the work that you do instead of who you are as a human being,” Palaima said. “To have people who are at the university simply to be at the university, they’re not there training for a future job; they’re there to explore who they are — that’s Terry.”
Whether or not Orr can build a new career in his eighth decade of life is of less importance to him than the pursuit: “I’m just leaving myself open to whatever may develop,” he said.