Verne Orr dies at 92; Air Force secretary during Reagan administration

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Verne Orr, the former director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles and Air Force secretary during the Reagan administration, died Thursday of complications from old age at his Pasadena home, according to his family. He was 92.

As Air Force secretary, Orr championed the B-1 bomber program, which had been canceled by President Jimmy Carter. Orr reactivated the program and was a crew member when the first of 100 planes were delivered ahead of schedule in 1981.

Orr was born in 1916 in Des Moines and moved with his family to Pasadena as a child. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Pomona College in 1937 and received a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford two years later.


He enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served aboard a supply ship in the Pacific Ocean, earning a Purple Heart after a torpedo hit his quarters. He was honorably discharged in 1951.

After World War II, Orr worked for his father’s car dealership, Verne Orr Motors in Pasadena, then became president of Investors Savings and Loan of Pasadena in 1963. Orr quit the business when it merged with another bank three years later.

Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed Orr, a Republican, to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and he took office in 1967.

He accommodated first lady Nancy D. Reagan’s request for an “NDR” vanity license plate over the objections of governor’s aides who worried she might be easily identifiable, and he ordered banners reading “Courtesy” be hung at every DMV office.

In 1970 Reagan tapped Orr to be the state’s director of Finance, a position he held until Reagan left office in 1975.

After being named to the University of California Board of Regents, Orr served on Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and transition team. Orr volunteered to be secretary of the Navy, but Reagan asked him to lead the Air Force, a move that was met with some skepticism.


“My appointment was received with underwhelming enthusiasm on the part of many people who said: ‘What is a used car salesman and a former Navy officer doing running the Air Force?’ ” Orr said in a 1985 interview with The Times.

Barry Goldwater, a family friend, was more blunt. “I don’t think Verne knew which end of the airplane went down the runway first,” he told The Times in 1985.

In addition to restarting the B-1 program, Orr oversaw the inception of the B-2 stealth bomber before he retired in 1985 to care for his wife of 45 years, the former Joan Peak, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. She died in 1988.

Orr married the former Sarah Smith in 1989 after meeting her at a United Way fundraiser. The couple established a planning and management consulting firm, and he began working on his doctorate at the Claremont Graduate University in the 1990s, partially spurred on because his wife was working on her graduate degree at the time.

“He was just a little bit competitive,” she said.

He put off his studies to become dean of the University of La Verne’s School of Business and Global Studies in 1999, but after he retired from the position in 2002 he began studying again. His 180-page dissertation focused on the B-1 bomber. One of his professors told him not to spend too much time in the library. He said: “You don’t need to do any more research, you are the research, you were there,” Orr said in a 2005 interview.

He received his degree that year at age 88.

Even in his retirement , Orr remained fascinated by technology. When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, his wife wanted to wait until “all of the bugs were worked out,” she said.


“But he said ‘No, no, no, we have to have [them],’ ” she said, so the couple got the devices about two weeks after they were released.

In addition to his wife, Orr is survived by daughter Carolyn Orr Fulton of Baltimore, son Robert Vernon Orr of Glen Garden, N.J.; stepsons Windsor Smith of Sunnyvale and Geoffrey Smith of Pasadena; and two grandchildren.

Services will be held Dec. 7 at 1 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church, 500 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

Instead of flowers, the family requests contributions to the Verne Orr Scholarship Fund of La Verne University.

Song is a Times staff writer.