Telling the Stories of our Lives: Orv Harrelson

Funded by a generous grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission in partnership with Puget Sound Book Artists, Anthea Karanasos Hubanks and Tacoma Seniors Write launched a series of creative writing workshops titled “Telling the Stories of Our Lives” at three Tacoma Senior Centers. The workshops consisted of a fun medley of classes for Elders interested in telling their stories through memoir, prose, letters, haiku, work collage, travelogues, and prose. In March 2020, as Washington State senior centers closed temporarily in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthea restructured the project. In place of the workshops, she conducted a series of phone interviews with five workshop participants — Myrtle Appling, Orv Harrelson, Barbara Jones, Constancio Bolima, and An Gates — and produced the following vignettes from the interviews. This is Orv Harrelson’s story.

On a mild autumn day in October, I called longtime Tacoma resident and occasional student of poetry and creative writing, Orv Harrelson, to chat about his life and multi-faceted career. Orv attended several writing workshops I taught a few years back, so I had already experienced his fun and engaging way of telling a story. For quite some time, I had been looking forward to my telephone reunion with Orv.

Born in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, Orv’s family moved to Tacoma in 1930 when Orv was three years old. The reason for the Harrelson’s move across the country was twofold. First, there was the untimely death of Orv’s grandmother, killed in an accident on the Nisqually Flats. Around the same time, Orv’s parents had succumbed to widespread bank failures that impacted the rural areas of North Carolina. Because banks had not yet failed in Washington, Orv’s family moved west. This was in the early years of the Great Depression, and when the family finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest, they found that Washington banks had also closed due to the widespread economic collapse. Back in North Carolina, Orv’s father and uncles owned dry goods stores in Cherryville and Rutherfordton. Orv shared that the bank failures evolved into a catastrophe for his family and his parents became very poor, having been “middle well-to-do before the bank failures.” 

Orv and his mother moved to Washington six months ahead of his father. It so happened that the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company allowed agents who worked for the company for at least six months to relocate to any agency in the country. To make up for the loss of his dry goods business and to prepare to relocate to Washington, Orv’s father applied at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and was hired as an agent. He began his new job back east and after fulfilling the six-month requirement, Orv’s father transferred to Washington and reunited with his family.

The Harrelsons moved several times during the Great Depression. Their first home in Tacoma was at North 6th Street and Yakima Avenue. Orv recalls attending various schools including Grant Elementary and Washington Elementary. At Grant Elementary, Orv skipped a grade, as he was a very intelligent child and an eager learner. The Harrelsons moved to 1216 Anderson Street where they stayed for several years. During World War II, Orv’s father worked at the Todd Shipyards. That income combined with Orv’s mother’s income as a secretary for the First Methodist Church allowed the family to buy a home at 3111 North 11th Street where Orv lived throughout high school and where his parents stayed for forty years. 

Stadium High School

Orv attended Stadium High school where he met his wife, Beverly. Bev was a half grade ahead of Orv and they were introduced by a mutual friend. Bev soon invited him to a tolo — a girl’s-choice dance. The couple dated intermittently for over seven years and eventually married on June 17, 1951. First however, Orv enlisted in the U.S. Navy as soon as he graduated from high school because he did not want to be drafted into the Army. Orv attended boot camp in San Diego and eventually applied for a program with the Navy to attend college. Due to high blood pressure, Orv missed out on deployment to the South Pacific with his company and was instead assigned to San Diego Harbor to a utilities squadron where he served as a Seaman First Class. Orv recalled with some amusement, “I was in the Navy for fourteen months during which I had the terrible duty of working in the storeroom, going into San Diego every Sunday to attend services at the First Methodist Church, having lunch at the U.S. Grant Hotel, and living somewhat of the high life.” He shared that military service was not at all a handicap for him and that it actually turned out to be a boon because it provided Orv with G.I. Bill benefits. 

After completing his Navy service, Orv returned to the Northwest and attended the University of Washington for three years, then attended medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. After medical school, Orv and Bev moved to Berkeley, California for Orv’s two-year internship and medical residency. Their first child, David, was born in Berkeley and Orv shared a major trauma the young couple experienced. David was born with bilateral inguinal hernias and had to have surgery when he was just six weeks old. Orv said, “David lived through it and so did we!” Orv and Bev moved their small family back to Tacoma in 1953 and their daughter Julie was born three years later at Tacoma General Hospital. Orv tells the story of the hospital being especially busy: “Bev was put into a room that was rarely used. It turned out that it was the same lying-in room where Bev had been born, which was quite a coincidence!” Three years later, their youngest child, Bob, was born under somewhat unique circumstances that came as a big surprise. Bev was still in the lying-in room going through labor. Before she could be transferred to the delivery room, the nurse checked Bev, and as Orv tells it, “… there was little Bob lying between my wife’s legs!”

Medical Arts Building

With his education complete, Orv went into general medical practice with Dr. Niethammer in the Medical Arts Building which is now the Tacoma City Building on Saint Helens Avenue. Orv’s surgical residency allowed him to assist with surgeries at five major hospitals in Tacoma. At that time, all doctors were on staff at all of the hospitals. Eventually Orv set up his own practice. After four years, he received a call from Schools Superintendent Angelo Giaudrone, who invited Orv to become the Medical Director of Tacoma Public Schools. He worked with school nurses and health educators there for fourteen years. Orv reflected, “I learned my way with mostly on-the-job training which led to opportunities like being on the Joint Committee for the American Medical Association and the National Education Association’s Joint Committee for School Health.” Orv was the only physician ever named to the committee by the National Education Association. At the Agency for Instructional Television as Chief National Consultant for two educational television programs — Self Incorporated and Inside Out — Orv produced programs that focused on the emotional health of children. Each program was specifically topical and included a teacher’s learning guide to help children deal with particular difficulties, such as bullying, or a death or divorce in the family. The program went on to win an Emmy in competition with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. This major accomplishment led to Orv appearing on the Today Show twice in 1971 to promote the program. On both occasions, Orv was interviewed by Gene Shallot. 

After working at the Tacoma School District for seven years, Orv became eligible for an education leave. So Bev and Orv decided to take their family on an extended vacation to the University of California at Berkeley where Orv earned a Master’s degree in public health. Upon returning to Tacoma, he wrote a letter to George Weyerhaeuser to apply for a position that Orv knew was available. He was hired and worked for Weyerhaeuser for fourteen years as the Corporate Medical Director, which included traveling to Weyerhaeuser facilities and factories across the country to set up corporate health policies and wellness programs. 

The biggest single event that occurred while Orv worked for Weyerhaeuser was the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. Weyerhaeuser wanted to retrieve timber blown down by the eruption, but there were questions of whether dust in the air was safe to breathe. University of Washington’s laboratory tested the dust around the blown volcano for silica and found the levels low, whereas Washington University’s laboratory found the levels to be high. Ultimately, retrieving the timber was determined to be safe, but because of the questionable nature of the work, Orv and Weyerhaeuser partnered with the worker’s union which resulted in the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health performing studies on the workers for several years.  The studies concluded that workers were safe aside from experiencing temporary bronchitis from dust exposure. 

Point Lobos

Orv retired in 1990 and that spring, his mother and her sister died just five days apart. As the only surviving relative, Orv inherited his mother’s condominium in Pacific Grove, California. Orv and Bev moved their family to the condo there, and for fourteen years traveled back and forth between Tacoma and Pacific Grove. One particularly scenic spot there that Orv and Bev loved to visit was Point Lobos, which looks out over the Pacific Ocean.  

In 2002, Bev and Orv decided to move back to Tacoma to be close to their children. Julie lives in Oregon, and David and Bob live in Federal Way. Upon returning, Orv and Bev volunteered for thirteen years as docents at the Glass Museum on Thursday mornings and for five years at the Visitor Information Center.

Along the way, Bev was diagnosed with a lung infection and started prednisone therapy. Side effects  from the prednisone therapy complicated Bev’s heart and lung conditions. Orv and Bev decided to sell their condo in Tacoma and move to a retirement community so as not to become a financial burden on their families. They visited various communities around Tacoma and chose Franke Tobey Jones, which offers a full range of services from independent living to skilled nursing care. Orv had served on the Franke Tobey Jones Board for six years, so he was familiar with and liked the management. Bev also had five relatives who had lived there previously, and another relative who was living there at the time. So the couple moved into Franke Tobey Jones and lived there together for three years. Bev passed on in February of 2018. At that very difficult time in Orv’s life, he attended a series of poetry workshops at Franke Tobey Jones, which is how we met. During our phone chat, Orv shared that in retrospect, he found the poetry class to be very helpful because he was able to write a few poems about his life with Bev. During another creative writing series, he also wrote some story vignettes about their life together. Orv said, “That meant a lot.”

Bev and Orv

Now Orv devotes his free time to working on committees at Frank Tobey Jones. He serves on the Library Committee and previously served on the Art Committee, the Resident Counsel, and the Scholarship Committee. Orv reads anywhere from two to three books a week and enjoys researching self-determination theory which posits that successful aging depends on three elements: autonomy, confidence, and relationships. For those interested in learning more on this topic, Orv recommends the book Aging in the Right Place by Stephen M. Golant, Ph.D., which explores “the profound significance of where older people live and receive care.” Using what he learned firsthand as a medical professional as well as from his research and his long life, Orv has authored writing that presents ways to modify the care approach “so that people’s competences are being supported, rather than simply taking care of people.” Orv is interested in promoting a model which he calls “supported living.” Orv says he “would like to see everyone, when they arrive, talk about their aspirations and what they are good at, then develop a contract as to what they will do to maintain their own well-being, and what the staff can do to help them, rather than doing for them.”

To the earlier question of the “significance of where older people live and receive care,” Orv added that “it’s an interesting experience to be caught in a category. I’m caught in the category of assisted living, and there are special rules for assisted living during a pandemic which amount to continuous quarantine for months on end. The only way we can go off-campus is for medical or dental appointments. And coming back, we have to fill out a risk assessment as to whether we were able to maintain mask wearing and a six-foot distance. I can’t go to the park or the grocery store. At least we can walk outside and we can walk inside the building. But for a while there, we couldn’t even go outside and we were confined to our rooms.”  Orv reflected that in his medical career, he had never faced anything like the current coronavirus pandemic. “Epidemics came along — like polio, which was a major scourge in the early days of my medical practice — but nothing as severe as this.”

I was curious to know if Orv had some wisdom to share on living through a difficult time like this. So I asked if he had advice to offer to his grandchildren. Orv answered, “If anything like this ever happens to you, always remember confidence and love!”

You heard him: “Confidence and love.”

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