A helping hand
Mike Orris knows a lot of people — a lot of people— and most of them he got to know during more than five decades of volunteerism.
Orris put in more than 48 years as a volunteer for the Washington County Fair. He has volunteered more than 50 years for Handicap Fishing Day. And Orris's face is very familiar to the veterans who go to the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Iowa City.
When he managed the fairgrounds, he was paid $2,000 a year, but he never kept the money. He donated back to 4-H'ers to add onto the amount of premiums they were paid at the fair.
"They didn't get much money — $ 2 or $3," Orris said.
He was inducted into the 4-H Hall of Fame in 2005 in recognition of his volunteer work.
During Handicap Fishing Day, Orris’s job is to hand out pop. There is one person who fishes who is only allowed one can of pop. Orris keeps track of that one can because more than that can make the person sick.
Orris remembers one participant who was so excited to catch a small fish that she fell into the pond at Marr Park — she had to be “fished out.”
Tuesdays find Orris in Iowa City at the VA Hospital. He arrives by 5 a.m. and leaves about 4 p.m.
“I make the coffee at 5 o’clock,” he said, “and they start calling me about 5:15 and leave at 4 p.m. — 11 hours and that’s enough for an old devil. I’m pretty worn out. The only pay you get is your meal.”
“They” includes anyone who needs a specimen taken to the lab or a patient who needs to move from one department to another. He said there are nine floors and 42 stations that he stops at.
“I used to go every Tuesday and Thursday,” Orris said, “but gas go tso high that I only go on Tuesdays now.”
In 2010, Orris received the President’s Award for his volunteer work at the VA Hospital. He received a letter signed by President Barack Obama. At that time he had volunteered 5,000 hours. He’s up to 5,850 hours now.
Orris also plays “Taps” at funerals for veterans.
He blew the bugle when he was in the Navy during World War II. He enlisted in the Navy in 1944 when he was 17. He was involved in the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. His brother and his best friend were killed in the war.
He now uses a recording of “Taps” and holds a bugle to his mouth at the funerals. He once drove to Atlantic, Iowa, to play “Taps” for someone he thought lived in Hills.
“Howard, he was in bad shape,” Orris recalled, “and he had no family around. I was in ICU when he passed away. He asked me right before he died.”
Orris didn’t hesitate to make the 300-mile drive to Atlantic to fulfill his promise to Howard.
Orris and his wife are planning their last trip to Hawaii to visit the grave of his brother who is buried in “the Punchbowl,” the national memorial cemetery for the Pacific on Oahu. His son is taking them.
After the war, Orris flew from Guam to Iwo Jima to visit his brother’s grave. He carries a photo of the grave in his billfold.
The son of an Ainsworth man, Hugh Morris, was a colonel and he was in charge of Iwo Jima at the time. Col. Morris took him to the top of Mount Suribachi, gave him a rock and let him carve his initials in the rock. He wonders if it is still there.
At a later time, his brother’s remains went to Hawaii where he rests today.
The Rotary Club honored Orris in 1992 with an Outstanding Service Award. He received a plaque from the Chamber of Commerce for outstanding service in 2005.
Orris is still volunteering and he’s still getting to know people, probably a lot of people.