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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    She gave 67 years to working in schools. Then she gave $1 million.

    Lillian Orlich expected to die on the job.

    “I thought one morning they’d come in here and find me dead as a doornail,” the longtime educator told a Washington Post video journalist in 2017.

    At the time, Orlich was 89 and had just retired after working 67 years as a teacher and counselor, almost all of those spent at Osbourn High and Osbourn Park High in Prince William County, Va. She was the kind of educator who arrived early and stayed late and kept in touch with students long after they graduated.

    That she was finally retiring seemed to surprise no one more than her. “But I haven’t died yet and I’m leaving,” she said in that interview.

    On March 7, Orlich passed away in a senior living community at the age of 95. On March 17, a memorial service was held for her at Osbourn Park High, in an auditorium named after her.

    If that service had marked the end of her connection to the school system, it would have been a powerful closing scene to her story: her life honored in the place where she had spent much of it. But in recent days, those who knew Orlich as “Miss O” have learned that, even in death, she will continue to play an important role in the school system’s community.

    Orlich left a $1 million donation to SPARK, the education foundation for Prince William County Schools.

    Dawn Davis, the executive director for SPARK, which stands for Supporting Partnerships and Resources for Kids, said she was aware that Orlich planned to leave a significant amount of money to the foundation, but she didn’t learn how much until after her passing.

    Davis called the amount “very surprising” and “very humbling.” People often think they need to be part of a group to make a difference, she said, but Orlich’s actions show “one person can make such a huge impact.”

    Davis described Orlich as showing what it looks like to invest in people. “She invested in her students. She invested in her community. And she invested in her school,” she said. “This was done out of true love.”

    Orlich’s donation will be used to expand a scholarship she arranged with the foundation after she retired. The money will also be distributed across the foundation’s six focus areas, which include educator preparedness; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education; and social and emotional learning.

    Dozens of students have already benefited from the scholarship that Orlich started years ago. For that, she arranged for two graduating seniors each year who showed, among other attributes, leadership, hard work and a passion to serve others to receive $2,500 each. Her recent donation will now allow students to receive up to $5,000 each, and if they maintain a 3.0 GPA, to be eligible for scholarships for four consecutive years.

    Davis said past recipients of the scholarship have been asked to write about how they would use the money. Each of their goals has differed, she said, but the underlying commonality was that they wanted “to do something for the community and change the world.”

    When I learned about Orlich and her donation, my mind went to the same place yours probably went - to those teachers who change lives, whether they know it or not. I have two that rise to the top of my school memories. Maybe you have more. Hopefully you have at least one.

    I wanted to tell you about Orlich, not just because it’s surprising that a high school educator was able to save $1 million (really, though, we should be paying teachers and counselors so much more than they earn), but also because her life warrants recognition. More impressive than the donation that followed her death was how she spent her life - showing up for young people day after day, year after year, decade after decade. She spent so long as an educator that she worked with the grandchildren of students she had helped.

    In that earlier Post video, Orlich shared that she was born, raised and educated in New York City and came to Prince William County in 1950 after a school administrator called her about a job teaching history. When she arrived at Osbourn High School, which had an all-White student body at the time because of segregation, the school principal introduced her as a “damn Yankee,” she recalled. In the decades that followed, she watched the county and the country change.

    She also went from teaching to counseling, a job that took her deep into the lives of students who were dealing with issues that ranged from academic struggles to teenage pregnancy.

    Pamela Gardner, director of school counseling at Osbourn Park High, recalled watching Orlich work with a group of students who had attendance issues.

    “Ms. Orlich would make it a point every single morning to call those kids to remind them that they needed to get to school and the importance of coming to school, and for them to stop by and see her so she could actually see that they came to school,” Gardner said.

    Gardner recalled Orlich arriving at school early every day, often at 3 a.m., and working through the summers. She also brought food for the staff every Monday for years.

    Gardner said she was surprised Orlich retired. She said she was not surprised that Orlich, who lived a frugal lifestyle, left such a large donation for the school system. It fits with her legacy, she said: “Her belief that kids can do and be anything that they want to be. Her advocating for any and everybody, making sure that education was attainable for everyone.”

    At the memorial service that was held for Orlich in the auditorium that bears her name, hundreds of people showed up. In speech after speech, people praised her dedication and shared the ways she personally impacted their lives.

    Orlich never married or had children. When she retired, she described the students she had met and the colleagues she had worked alongside as her family.

    “I don’t have any living relatives,” she said. “These are my relatives.”

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