Governor of Indiana, 1981-1989
Visionary Governor of the 80s known for opening economic and cultural ties between Indiana and Asia and laying the groundwork for today’s Indiana Economic Development Corporation.
Although Robert Orr was born in Michigan, he was unquestionably a Hoosier—and a true citizen of the world. From local politics to international relations, Orr spent much of his life in service, dedicated to helping Indiana grow and become a more prosperous state.
Governor Orr grew up in Indiana before attending high school at an elite preparatory program in Connecticut. The school helped prepare him for the rigor of Yale University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1940. After graduation, he began taking business classes at Harvard University—but Orr would never complete his MBA.
When World War II shook the nation, Robert Orr left Harvard to enlist in the U.S. Army. He served in the Pacific theater and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually earning the Legion of Merit medal for his outstanding service. Then, in 1946, Orr moved back to Evansville and started working for his family business—the Orr Iron Company.
A third-generation Evansville resident, Robert Orr was an active member of the community with a reputation as a brilliant business, civic, and political leader. He worked for the local Republican Party for years before he was elected to the Indiana State Senate in 1968. He then served as senator for another four years, until Otis Bowen asked him to join his gubernatorial campaign in 1972.
Their bid was successful, and Governor Bowen became Indiana’s first two-term governor since 1851. After his service as Lieutenant Governor, Orr quickly secured the Republican nomination and won the 1980 Governor election by the largest margin in state history.
As Governor, Orr focused on improving Indiana’s education system and revitalizing the state’s struggling economy. At the time, the nation was battling a severe recession, facing both high inflation and high unemployment. Orr realized that the international community offered new opportunities to cultivate the state’s economy, so he worked to elevate Indiana onto the global stage.
Part of that work included the foundation of the Corporation for Indiana’s International Future—the first of its kind in the nation. Governor Orr established the Corporation in 1987 to help Indiana compete in the global economy while fostering communication and cultural exchange with other countries.
While it no longer exists, the Corporation laid the groundwork for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which serves many of the same purposes today. They help strengthen Indiana’s international partnerships and pave the way for new opportunities and investment from foreign-owned businesses.
Governor Orr’s dedication to global connectivity also increased awareness of the international communities within Indiana. In 1983, Orr established the first Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week to honor the community’s contributions to science, literature, government, and the arts.
In his proclamation, Orr wrote: “Americans of Asian/Pacific ancestry continue to strive for human dignity and equal rights for all persons—regardless of race, color, or creed.” Since then, the tradition has grown into Asian-American/Pacific Islander Week, which is celebrated each May.
In honor of his dedication to Indiana’s global growth, Robert Orr received the International Citizen of the Year Award in 1988. He then continued to serve as Governor for another year, until President George H.W. Bush appointed him the U.S. Ambassador to Singapore—where he remained until his retirement in 1992.
After a life of service, Robert D. Orr passed away in 2004. He will forever be remembered for his impact and efforts to highlight Indiana as a window to the world.