By Michael Alison Chandler
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Thirty years of service in Virginia schools and at least 50 years old: That's the formula to be able to retire with full benefits from Prince William County public schools.
But many teachers and counselors say their eyes start wandering to the clock much sooner, perhaps during the umpteenth discussion of "Macbeth" or midway through the 5,000th letter of recommendation.
Not for Lillian Orlich, school counselor for the ages.
At 81 and with more than 56 years of service at Osbourn Park High School, the veteran is going for twice the average career for an educator. Half a dozen principals have come and gone, and scores of her former students devote their days to golf or grandchildren.
Yet she is still counseling teenagers and sharpening her professional skills.
"I'm not going to retire," said Orlich, with cropped silver hair and wearing a bright-purple quilted jacket. "I love coming to school. It keeps you young."
Orlich is the longest-serving employee in Prince William schools and, quite possibly, the Washington region. She has been at Osbourn Park long enough to remember the previous building and the one before that.
She can recall when the school had 200 students, not 2,700, as it does today, and when Friday night football games were followed by sundaes at the Birmingham Milk Bar.
The native New Yorker also remembers when Manassas was a "teeny-weeny" town with no stoplight and had "13 churches for 1,300 people." That was 1950, when black children went to a regional high school across town. It was the year Orlich boarded a train in Manhattan and headed to Virginia farm country after graduating from New York University.
"I struck out on my own," she said. She recalls the gray jumper with embroidered flowers she wore on her first day at Osbourn Park and the moment the principal introduced her as the "gal from Manhattan" to students not much younger than she.
Now, her slightly stooped frame and formal demeanor stand out in a hallway full of screaming teenagers in bluejeans and hooded sweat shirts.
In the era of texting and social networking, she does not have a cellphone and has never logged on to Facebook. Although she bought her first pair of slacks in 1971, she said she does not feel comfortable wearing pants to work.
She connects with students the same ways she always has: She listens. She doesn't pass judgment. She tries to help.
Osbourn Park Principal Timothy Healey said Orlich has been "a rock" at the once-insular country school that has become a major suburban campus with students from more than 30 countries.
Her office is decorated with decades-old collections of teddy bears, dolls with red hats, Osbourn Park T-shirts and jerseys, and bees, for the school's yellow jacket mascot.
"Buzz on in" reads a sign on her door. On a recent morning, Orlich sat down with a student who had questions about a scholarship. Another student arrived with his father to complete forms so he could transfer in from an out-of-state school.
She listened attentively to every one, hands clasped in her lap, glasses hanging from a chain around her neck.
During her career, Orlich has seen special education students join the mainstream. Children of immigrants have become the first in their families to go to college. Girls have expanded their ideas about careers.
Orlich's students said she is relentless when they get off track.
Gabriel Lewis, a sophomore, said that at the end of the first quarter this year, he had an F in math and a C- in French. "Miss O" brought him in with his mother for a conference.
"She told it to me straight, how I needed to hear it," Gabriel said. "She was firm. She said it's not fair to myself to give up." He said he resolved to work harder and to not let homework slide.
Orlich said she would "hound" him until he does.
Her grandmotherly appearance and diminutive stature (she weighs about 100 pounds) fool no one. "She has more energy than I will ever have," said Suzanne Salvo, a guidance counselor who has worked at Osbourn Park for 13 years.
Orlich goes to bed at 10 or 11 p.m. She's usually in her office by 4 a.m., doing paperwork so she can focus on students all day. She skips lunch. She drinks decaf.
Her weekends, when she's not working, often include high school plays or sporting events, as well as a baking binge that covers a faculty-room table with pumpkin pies, jam-filled poundcakes and chocolate muffins.
During the summer, she slows down -- clocking in at 6 a.m. and knocking off at 3 p.m.
In August, she enrolled in a week-long workshop for teachers who work with students learning English as a second language. "Any kind of training that can help me understand our students better," she said.
She had colon cancer diagnosed five years ago and underwent a year of chemotherapy, but she missed only three weeks of school.
Over the years, romance has been fleeting, Orlich said, and her sister and parents have died. But relationships with her colleagues and students endure. Former students populate all parts of her life -- her lawyer, her mayor, her surgeon and her landscaper are all former charges.
Many Osbourn Park teachers and alumni said they can count on a personal note from Orlich to mark their birthdays or anniversaries. Holidays often bring former students spilling into her office to say hello.
Many current and former students said she is someone they turn to in difficult times.
Martha Sullivan, Class of 1955, lost her husband a few years ago. During the sleepless nights that followed, she would call her old high school teacher, already at her desk in the early hours. "She got me through a lot," said Sullivan, a retired insurance saleswoman in Manassas.
As colleagues retire, Orlich remains steadfast in her desire to stay in school. But there is one other thing she sometimes imagines doing.
In the mid-1990s, she enrolled in Osbourn Park's Junior ROTC program so that she could be a role model for other students and to pursue a personal interest. Her role model growing up was Amelia Earhart.
"That was an opportunity I never had as a young girl," she said. So, if she ever does retire, "maybe I will learn to fly."