Alexander Orr (Family photo)

Alexander G. Orr, who co-founded the Hawthorne School, a private high school in Washington that earned a reputation as an innovative and at times controversial center of learning, died May 11 at his home in Herndon, Va. He was 94.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said a son, Douglas Orr.

Mr. Orr was a seventh-grade history and social studies teacher before he and his wife, Eleanor, also an educator, conceived of the idea for a new school with experimental learning techniques.

“So many bright young things from all over the country told us how bored they were with school,” the Orrs told The Washington Post a few years after starting Hawthorne in 1956 with a student body of 14 and classes in a basement.

Over time, the nondenominational and coeducational school’s approach — rigorous standards but creative programming — helped grow its reputation in academia. They brought in musicians such as Duke Ellington and Jean Ritchie to help augment its music program. They made sure the students knew classic literature but also were up on current events.

During the school’s daily morning assembly, The Post reported in 1958, Mr. Orr would ask the students questions from that day’s paper: “Who is the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice? What is his age? Is that significant?”


Alexander Orr, right, with his daughter Meghan Mulvihill at Great Falls, Va. (Family photo)

The students called teachers by their first names; Mr. Orr, the headmaster, went by a nickname, “Sandy.” But students were expected to master math, physical sciences, English literature and composition, and history. They could choose one of six languages to study, including classical Greek. Tuition was high, and many of the students included children of the city’s political and journalism elite.

But by the late 1960s, Mr. Orr told The Post, “Hawthorne’s problems began with hair.” Long hair was in style, and although Mr. Orr did not care how students chose to groom themselves, some parents began to question whether the school encouraged rebellious behavior and a counterculture ethos.

The Orrs also made the contentious decision to open the school grounds to Vietnam War protesters and the participants of the 1968 Poor People’s March, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to combat poverty and low employment.

“We started to become unpopular around 1968,” Mr. Orr told The Post, “because we became involved in the wrong things at the wrong time.”

The school’s liberal stances on social and political issues alienated some community members who withdrew their children from the school. With funding troubles, the school entered into an agreement with the Washington school system that would allow public school students to enroll at Hawthorne without paying tuition. In exchange, the school could forgo rent payments. Nevertheless, the school closed in 1982.

Alexander Godfrey Orr was born in Valley Stream, N.Y., on April 17, 1924. His father was a buyer for a family business that imported arts and antiquities, mostly from Japan, and his mother was a homemaker.

After graduating from high school, he served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II. He graduated in 1948 from Williams College in Massachusetts with a degree in U.S. history. He married the former Eleanor Wilson in 1950, and they both went on to teach at Georgetown Day School before opening their school.

After Hawthorne closed, Mr. Orr was a safety and security specialist and administrative assistant at Langley High School in McLean, Va., from 1986 until he retired in 2002.

His wife died in 2008. In addition to his son, of Annapolis, survivors include three other children, Leslie Orr of Dubai, Meghan Mulvihill of Northbrook, Ill., and Duncan Orr of Locust Grove, Va.; and nine grandchildren.

At the height of Hawthorne’s most intense public scrutiny in the late 1960s, Mr. Orr said he had no regrets about how he and his wife ran the school. “It hasn’t made us wealthy,” he said. “God knows we get angry with each other, angry with the student body, angry with the board. But of course we’d make the same choices again.”