Kelly: Time couldn't derail Dick Orr's passion for streetcars - Omaha.com
Published Monday, July 29, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 11:22 am
Kelly: Time couldn't derail Dick Orr's passion for streetcars

Like the trolleys he loved, streetcar enthusiast Dick Orr has reached the end of the line.

He filmed Omaha's last streetcar run in 1955 and long hoped for a renewal of a streetcar or light rail system in Omaha.

While mayor, Hal Daub once promised him the first ride on new streetcars. But Dick told me 14 years ago: “I don't think I'll ever see them.”

He did not. Richard Orr died July 19 at 88.

“He was just a wonderful guy,” said Daub. “I got to know him when I served on a transportation subcommittee in Congress (in the 1980s), and he gave me his insights.”

People die, but hopes for a streetcar line seemingly never do. Daub, a proponent, said the idea “has been pretty much studied to death.”

A streetcar line is one option in a $1.3 million, 18-month transportation study underway for the Metro transit system. It is funded with a $700,000 federal grant and local contributions from various institutions, including the City of Omaha.

Dick Orr

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Emerging Terrain this month proposed a light rail system on the old Belt Line railroad path — built in the 1880s and abandoned in the 1980s — that extends from north Omaha through South Omaha and into Bellevue.

As mayor from 1994 to 2001, Daub pushed for a streetcar loop that would connect Creighton University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the midtown area with downtown, plus a stretch on South 10th Street to the zoo.

With rising costs, he acknowledged last week that getting a streetcar system on track becomes difficult. Because of potential costs, Mayor Jean Stothert has not supported the idea.

Kansas City, Mo., is building a $102 million downtown streetcar line funded largely with a 1-cent sales tax for 25 years in a “downtown streetcar district.” The line, scheduled to open in 2015, is designed by Omaha-based HDR Inc.

Oklahoma City had planned to have a streetcar line by 2017, but the effort stalled this month when local commissioners raised questions.

If Dick Orr was something of a romantic on the subject of streetcars, he had a personal reason. As a young man, he took a certain streetcar because he had his eye on a certain rider named Martha Ann Neuhaus.

Streetcars didn't last, but the couple's marriage endured — more than six decades.

“Dick was versatile, interested in everything,” Martha Ann said. “He always wanted to conserve our world and all of its resources. We recycled everything we could, and we're continuing that — donating his body to medical science.”

His body wore out with age, including two strokes and a heart attack, but he had taken very good care of himself. He ran 22 marathons between the ages of 50 and 60, including Boston's.

He worked four decades in the printing business. In his basement, he made parts for model streetcars and trains that sold internationally. They were known as “Orr parts.”

For years, the family took vacations in a 1965 Studebaker modified for sleeping. He owned it from age 41 to age 82.

Dick wrote two books about streetcars. And in 1999, he gathered the 8 mm home movies he had shot long ago, producing a one-hour, 47-minute video, “Streetcars of Omaha and Council Bluffs, 1947-55.”

The video was more than just film of streetcars, though. It provided a treasure-trove of postwar Omaha pictures.

It included glimpses of such bygone landmarks as the Metz Brewery, the Admiral, Beacon, Chief and Military Theaters, the Nebraska Clothing Store and the old Woodmen of the World building. Also, as narrator, Dick said, “the infant Nebraska Furniture Mart.”

He was pleased in 2002 when a wall sculpture was unveiled at Happy Hollow Boulevard and Underwood Avenue, a tribute to the Dundee neighborhood's streetcar past. Local residents helped raise $130,000 for the sculpture.

Dick appreciated stability — 41 years with a car, 53 years in one house, 62 years with his wife, 71 years at St. Paul United Methodist Church, 5410 Corby St.

A memorial service will be held there at 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 18. Another will be held at 10 a.m. on Aug. 19 at Skyline Manor, where he and Martha Ann have lived in recent years. He is also survived by daughters June Roberts of San Francisco and Wendy Smith of Minneapolis.

A 1942 graduate of Benson High, Dick enjoyed the mature trees and homes of the Benson neighborhood. He helped restore the old Omaha streetcar on display in the Durham Museum — and when he visited, he would always turn the streetcar's destination sign to “Benson.”

He often lamented that people were “married to their cars” and noted that mass transit is more energy-efficient.

Hal Daub says it's just a matter of time.

“Someday all urban areas like ours will have commuter light rail,” he said. “I think the idea has new legs and new life. If it happens, we can give a little of the legacy and credit for keeping the idea alive to Dick Orr.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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