W.E. Orr-

He Made History & Recorded It


JUDSONIA, Ark. – Mention local history in Arkansas, and the name W.E. Orr comes to mind.  Orr is known for his book, That’s Judsonia, his articles in Judsonia’s newspaper, the White County Record, and his many talks on White County history. 

He’s also known for making history.  As a teacher, school superintendent, and later as county school supervisor, he helped build strong schools and libraries in the area for about 43 years.  One of his accomplishments as supervisor was consolidating a number of weak school districts into good ones.  “A school superintendent was a glorified principal during the 1930s and 1940s,” says Orr.  His job was to manage the schools, recommend teachers to be hired, teach whatever classes were left over, and coach girls’ basketball.

But what people will remember me for is the South’s Most Spectacular tournament,” Orr says.  In the 1940s, he built the high school girls’ county basketball tournament, which had been drawing small crowds, into a lively show that thousands came to see – held in a different town each year.  The first SMS tournament, held at Judsonia, drew about 10,000, Orr says.  “There may be some exaggeration,” he admits.  He tells about introducing beauty reviews, orchestras, style shows, circuses, vaudeville, fireworks, and even – once – an elephant to pep things up.  He rented a bull elephant from some carnies, and people came to see him fall through the floor, Orr says.


For five years during his service as county superintendent, Orr found time to edit the Judsonia newspaper.  He commuted about 30 miles a night or two a week to get the paper out.  This involvement sparked his interest in local history.  Some Judsonians born about 1870 were still living, and he interviewed them for the paper.  He collected so much material that he began to plan a book.  Orr had the manuscript ready in 1952 but a killer tornado that March blew many town landmarks away.  He rewrote part of the book, and didn’t publish it until 1957.  Orr had waited until his forties to marry.  (“I don’t rush through life,” he says), and the older of his two daughters was born the week That’s Judsonia came out.   He recalls telling his wife, Bonnie, that they would lose $300 on the book.  He didn’t think people outside Judsonia would be interested in it, but he was wrong.  “Libraries at colleges I had never heard of bought the book,” he says.  Selling That’s Judsonia for $3.50 a copy brought in more than enough to cover the printing costs.  He still has five copies, and wishes he had more.  He’s heard of a copy selling for $25 and he has sold one himself for $15.  Orr’s own evaluation of the book is “It’s the best book about Judsonia.”  More seriously, he wishes more writers would try local history.  “It’s tragic that more is not done,” he says.  He has a manuscript on White County history ready for the printer.  But because “printing costs are out of sight,” he plans to wait awhile to publish it.


Orr wrote features for the Judsonia paper throughout his 31 years as county school supervisor.  When he retired from that position seven years ago, he found he wasn’t ready to quit working.  “I walked the floor with nothing to do,” he recalls.  After about nine months, the paper was sold, and the new owner asked Orr to edit the paper.  As editor from 1976 to 1979, Orr worked many 60-hour weeks, and built the paper’s circulation to more than 2,000 in a town with 1,600 inhabitants.