“The quality that always impressed me about Larry Orr was not that he was a brilliant engineer, which he was, but the way he could create an atmosphere for innovation,” recalls David Hovind, president of PACCAR Inc. “People who I thought didn't have a sense of innovation suddenly became very creative around Larry.”
Anyone fortunate enough to have worked with Kenworth Truck Company’s Larry Orr will remember that heady sensation of feeling themselves being lead steadily and patiently upward until, like Orr himself, they stood looking out at a landscape of endless possibilities. It was perhaps his most unique and important gift to the industry he loved, and the mystery of just how he did it died with him on May 31. In a time when trucking needs all the brilliance it can muster, however, it is important to examine his remarkable life for insights into the process of creating an “atmosphere of innovation.”
For starters, Orr was a serious thinker who acknowledged no design constraints beyond the laws of physics and his own power to imagine and create. And what a power it was. During his distinguished 36-year career with Kenworth Truck Co., he served in several key positions, including as chief engineer. He is best known for his leadership role in the development of the industry-altering aerodynamic truck, the Kenworth T600A, for which Orr and his engineering and design team were awarded the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Award for the Advancement of Motor Vehicle Research and Development.
He worked tirelessly on a number of other ideas as well, however, to make trucks safer and more productive. In his “off” hours at home, he even experimented with ways to improve heat transfer, studying everything he could find on thermodynamics in the process.
Another element in Larry Orr’s amazing ability to innovate was his delight in ranging outside the box of his engineering discipline. In addition to physics and mathematics, he studied astronomy, philosophy and religion. Orr not only read engineering and trucking journals, but also Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Joseph Conrad’s novels and Dr. Seuss. And everything he learned, he brought to bear on his life’s work.
Orr’s passion for doing good work, for doing the right thing, was compelling. As a result, he could send shock waves of purpose and relevance through employee teams, bringing meaning, consequence and even nobility to the daily tasks at hand. Under his guidance, projects were transformed into important missions and great causes, worthy of energy and personal commitment. To participate was an exhilarating privilege.
Finally, Orr believed to his bone marrow that everyone has a unique contribution to make and is divinely called to discover their particular gifts and use them. This caused him to celebrate diversity and creativity wherever he found it. It also cloaked his fierce pride in a profound and genuine humility. After all, he reasoned, he was just a person trying to use his talents to make things better— the exact same job description everyone else had.
Back in 1999, Larry Orr was nominated for the Distinguished Service Citation of the Automotive Hall of Fame. It was never awarded. Today, he has also been nominated for an SAE Fellowship. His contributions to aerodynamic truck design alone are more than reason enough to award him every honor the industry might bestow. Orr’s greater legacy, however, was the transforming example he set by his own life of what can be achieved when intelligence and effort are focused on making a difference. For this gift, there is no adequate honor, no sufficient praise.