By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
In the pre-Google map days, Mike Orkus was doing what any veteran Catholic school educator does in fulfilling the “other duties” section of his job description. Following afternoon band practice at Holy Cross School in the Lower 9th Ward, Orkus would take off on a nomadic, 50-mile route, from Chalmette to Kenner, to drop off 40 middle-school students to their homes.
Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have had a band.
“From the Chalmette ferry landing to Williams Boulevard in Kenner – that’s how crazy I was,” said Orkus, 69, who will retire in May from Holy Cross School after 48 years in Catholic education.
There were a few other things about those bus trips. For one, as a driver focused on avoiding potholes, Orkus easily could blend into the background – the kids probably forgot he was there – and he would hear unfiltered comments about what was going on in their lives.
“Because the kids felt free to talk, I would hear things like, ‘I hate religion class,’” Orkus said. “And I would think to myself, ‘Wait, there’s something wrong with that.’ But what they were really saying was they didn’t like the way their teacher was teaching religion. I thought I might be able to do a better job.”
The other things Orkus heard were compliments. Orkus would pull the Holy Cross bus into the McDonald’s parking lot – a red-alert crisis for any manager of a fast-food joint – and give his students a lesson in fear and in how to raise the bar.
“I would always tell those kids, ‘If the manager does not compliment me on your behavior, you’re in big trouble,’” Orkus said, laughing.
Life as a Catholic school teacher is not for those obsessed with 401-Ks. It is for those obsessed with serving others and changing lives.
“You don’t want to be preaching to students,” Orkus said. “It is more or less showing concern for them and listening to them. If you can be one of the people they feel comfortable to talk to, that’s great. It’s the simple things, like starting every practice with a prayer, every performance with a prayer. I really do believe faith is more caught than it is taught.”
Orkus got his start in music “before I could even speak.” His uncle, David Daigle, got a music scholarship to Holy Cross in the 1950s, and his parents, Bill and Pearl, would take him as a baby to every Holy Cross football game.
Orkus even recalls the precision – and the antics – of Holy Cross Brother Roberto Muller, who was the band director in the 1960s. In those days, the bands of each school shared the halftime performance, each allotted 7 1/2 minutes. If the second band went over time, that band’s team was subject to a delay of game penalty at the start of the second half.
“Brother Roberto would stand there with a timer, and he would give the other band 7 1/2 minutes, and then he would take off,” Orkus said. “Sometimes there were two bands on the field at the same time! He wasn’t going to have our school penalized. There was an opinion column in one of the sports pages with the title: ‘Tigers Tough at Halftime.’”
Orkus’ dad never graduated from high school, but he adopted Holy Cross – the school his wife’s three brothers attended – and became “the all-time best cheerleader” for the Tigers.
“He was so big that Archbishop Rummel wrote in its school paper, ‘Every school needs a Bill Orkus,’” Orkus recalled. “You could hear him from the other side of the stadium.”
As a kid, Orkus walked to St. Christopher School in Metairie through the parking lot of the Airline Drive-In and picked up the clarinet and later learned how to play the sax. When he went on to Holy Cross, he practiced every day under director Frank Mannino. The band often would hit the streets at 7 a.m., playing the Tigers’ fight song, protected by the city’s noise ordinance and its history, dating to 1849. The neighbors gritted their teeth, but at least they never needed an alarm clock.
“I heard a story from the former headmaster, Brother Robert Hampton, that he got a call one day from a lady on the block about the noise,” Orkus said. “After listening to her complaint, he said, ‘I’m sorry we’re disturbing you, m’am, but … we were here first.’”
“What I always liked about practicing before school, as I look back, was that I always went to my first class in a great mood,” Orkus said. “You had time to wake up. You were at your school playing music, and that was a lot of fun. In my own mind, I was still playing the music as I went to class.”
After graduating from Holy Cross, Orkus spent three years as a Holy Cross brother and later returned to the University of New Orleans and Loyola University to complete his music education degree. He became an assistant band director under Mannino in 1971.
Orkus has spent 28 of his 48 years in Catholic education at Holy Cross, where he was proudest of developing the middle-school band program of 140 students, taking the Holy Cross band to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1981 and also establishing a vibrant middle-school sports program. He also has taught at Christian Brothers Academy, St. Paul’s School and De La Salle High School, and he was principal for four years at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Kenner.
“My bucket list was to work in Catholic education for 50 years,” Orkus said.
Eighteen months ago, Orkus developed a head cold that went down to his chest. When he went to the doctor for what he thought was a minor ailment, he found out he was in heart failure. His heart, which normally pushed out 55 to 60 percent of the blood on each beat, was operating at only 10 percent.
Most recently, he got the news it was pumping at 30 percent.
“I decided I have to be changing things to see what’s the best way to stay healthy and prolong my life,” Orkus said. “I decided that a full-time job, getting up at 5 in the morning and spending the whole day teaching, was a little too much stress for a weak heart.”
Doctors have told him the average life expectancy for someone with his condition is about five years.
“I’m hoping to be the exception,” Orkus said. “I’ve lived as full a life as I can. When God is ready for me, it’s all in his hands, whether that’s a couple of years or if I break the odds. Whatever, that’s OK.”
Orkus attends Mass regularly with the Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Abbey, and he hopes to serve as a Benedictine Oblate – a person who prays and works with the monks – after he finishes his teaching career.
His heart is full. A Holy Cross graduate told him recently that he could not remember doing anything at Holy Cross “that didn’t start with a prayer.”
“That’s a powerful thing to hear from a graduate,” Orkus said. “I could not have imagined being in an atmosphere where we could not mention the name of God without it being a legal issue. There are so many very good public schools, but you’re still missing something. If you’re missing out on faith, you’re missing out on the most important thing in life.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.