When Lillian Orlich arrived in Manassas, Va., in 1950, taking a rambling bus from Manhattan, she had only heard of the town from her history books. She landed in the place known for its notable Civil War battles and stepped into Cocke’s Pharmacy — then the nexus of the small town.
Orlich had come to teach history at Osbourn High School, where the school principal introduced her to the all-white student body at the segregated high school as a “damn Yankee.”
She had a sense then that she would stay for a while in what was then a small farming community.
“As soon as I got here, I knew this place was where I could do the most good,” said Orlich.
But she had no inkling that she would stay nearly her entire career — or that her career would span nearly seven decades.
Orlich, 89, officially retired last month after 67 years as a teacher and counselor, spending all but three of those years at Osbourn High and nearby Osbourn Park High in Prince William County. Students have laughed, smiled and cried within the walls of the windowless office she has occupied since the mid-1970s, bringing to the woman they knew affectionately as “Miss O” the myriad challenges of high school life: friendship drama, unstable home lives and academic difficulties.
She has served as a school counselor for parades of siblings and generations of families, sometimes helping the grandchildren of students she counseled early in her career.
Her former students and counselees became doctors, lawyers, accountants and landscapers. Manassas City Mayor Hal Parrish was in her social studies course in the late 1960s. NBA legend David Robinson checked into her office in the early 1980s.
Orlich never married and has outlived her parents and sister. Her students and her colleagues have become her family.
“I don’t have any living relatives,” said Orlich, sitting in her office near the blue and gold desk she painted when she first moved into the building. “These are my relatives.”
For years, Orlich would arrive at school at 3 or 4 a.m. to complete paperwork and sometimes see parents, teachers and students for appointments as early as 5 a.m. She would man the front desk phones until secretaries arrived at 7 a.m. She had planned to work until she dropped dead — and imagined her funeral would be held in the school auditorium.
“I thought that I would die on the job,” said Orlich, sitting in her office this week. She laid her hands on a long skirt to reveal her nails painted in shimmery blue and gold, the school’s colors. “I thought that one day they’d find me here and that I’d be dead as a doornail.”
Poor health changed her mind, but she plans to return to the school as much as she is able in retirement. She will continue putting out the Money Tree, a newsletter she assembles to publicize scholarships, and plans to occupy her office until the school hires another counselor.
Orlich was born, raised and educated in New York City, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and a master’s in history from New York University, where she also took education and school counseling courses. She was drawn to Manassas after a school administrator there rang her to tell her that they needed a history teacher.
She worked at the high school until 1957, when she left for three years to work at a school in New Jersey. She returned in 1960 to start the county’s first Advanced Placement program.
Parrish recalls her being a tough social studies teacher, setting expectations high for her young students. She required students to take an oral exam, putting them before a panel of administrators who would grill them on historic facts, an experience that Parrish recalls as frightful.
“She had students who were competent and worked hard and listened to her because of her demand for excellence,” said Parrish, who would go on to graduate at the top of his class at the University of Virginia. “Many of us went on to do things that were good for not only their careers but their communities, too.”
Later, she became a full-time school counselor because she preferred working one-on-one with students. But the petite, hyperkinetic woman had her hand in many things. When the JROTC program started at the high school in the 1990s, she joined as a cadet to promote the program, participating in drills and wearing a neatly pressed uniform once a week. She religiously attended every school performance — the auditorium is now named in her honor.
“She was like the matriarch of the school,” said Megan Lynch, who graduated from Osbourn Park High in 2001 and later returned to teach English language learners, working alongside Orlich. “She is part of the school, like the foundation of it.”
School counselors are often called on to martial challenging situations at school — conflicts between teachers and students, truant students and young people who may bring the trauma and grief of a difficult home life through the school’s doors. Orlich approached them all with a trademark calm.
Lynch recalled a meeting in which a student planned to disclose to her parents that she was pregnant. A young teacher at the time, Lynch was deeply anxious that things would go awry. Orlich served as the facilitator, matter-of-factly laying out how the school would support the expectant teen.
“She was a calming influence and kind of a reassuring influence,” Lynch said. “I knew this lady has probably seen it all as far as difficult discussions go.”
Orlich’s career has outlasted radical changes to the surrounding community and the school system. The schools are no longer segregated, subdivisions have replaced farmland and explosive growth in the number of students has spurred brand new high schools and increased her caseload to hundreds of students.
But despite the shift in her surroundings, Orlich said her job, at its core, has changed little.
“My first role is to be a listener,” she said.