Saturday, July 7, 2007

Steve Orel: He is gone...

Posted by Glenda Jo Orel
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
W. H. Auden

We are so sad to report the passing of the remarkable Steve Orel after putting up one of the great battles against colon cancer. But no one was surprised that Steve would fight to the end. After all, he fought the Klan in Birmingham (as a Jew and civil rights worker in Birmingham, that ain't easy), the racist policies of the Birmingham Board of Education, and his most valiant fight of all - to make the WOO (World of Opportunity) a place where the poorest, most downtrodden students would get a second chance. The recipient of ACT NOW's "Courage in Education Award," that barely touches on the incredible things Steve accomplished.

It is often said about people who pass, they will be sorely missed. By t
he people who loved them. Or worked with them. In Steve's case, he will be missed by all of humanity. There is probably no worse time to lose someone like Steve.

In April 2006 I hitched a ride with friends Ira and Sheila Goldfine who were driving down south. We loaded up the Godfine's van with old computers, books and whatever else we cou
ld gather, as The WOO has become a center for the distribution of "stuff" to people in need. With Steve's illness looming so large, we never expected to see Steve, who I met at the ACT NOW conference organized by SusanOhanian, Juanita Doyan and others to forge a national resistance to the evils of high stakes testing and to battle against the upcoming NCLB Act. The conference was held at the WOO in March 2003 where Steve was given his Award. Steve included the entire WOO in accepting the Award.

We were on the highway looking for The WOO, when a van cut us off, the driver pointing to follow him. Hey, this is the south, and we were nervous, but we got off at the exit. A yellow paper popped out the window. In bright red letters, it said "WOO" on it. when we pulled into theWOO's driveway, out popped Steve from the car, his arm in a sling from all the crap they had been pumping into him. "You didn't think I wouldn't recognize 3 Jews from New York, did you," he said with a big smile? That was the first time Ira and Sheila had met Steve and after an hour with him talking education, politics, people, kids, etc. theimpression he made on them was as great as anyone they had ever met.

Ira, Sheila and I visited with Steve and Glenda Jo one evening a few months ago on one of their visits to Sloan Kettering here in NY and heard all the horror stories about the health care system directly from them. Michael Moore could have made "Sicko" just using their story. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to see Steve twice in the past year or so.

The other day, when things were looking bleak, Glenda Jo, asked for final messages to be read to Steve in his final days. Knowing Steve as a man with one of the great senses of humor, I could imagine him making jokes about his situation 'till the end. So I sent a bunch of politically oriented chicken crossing the road jokes along with the message below. I hope he got to hear a few of them and smile.

Dear Steve,
While there's much to be sad about, there's so much to cheer in a life well lived
. We only met a few times but I feel I've known you so well. I wish we had more time to hang out and schmooze, and, most of all, laugh. Of course, your first words to me when we met at the WOO were "Hello, what subject do you want to tutor? Here's someone to work with. See you later." No laughs there. I didn't find out about your amazing sense of humor 'till later when we went to get those peace banners from your car for the weekly anti-war vigil on a corner in downtown Birmingham, Al., as surrealist experience as I've had.

You said such kind words about what you noticed about the work I did with the student. You got me as a teacher in just a few moments. I value those words of yours as much an any praise I have received.

But enough of the serious stuff, Steve. As a man with as good a sense of humor as anyone I have met, we know that there's nothing you like better than a good laugh. And you are about the only one I know who, despite your situation, will find a laugh to be the best medicine. When Oscar Wild was in your situation he said, "
Either that wallpaper goes, or I do."

And given the point we are at and the risk of doing anything in bad taste - but of course, "bad taste" are my middle names, I revert to the venerable use of the "chicken crossing the road" series, which no matter how dire the situation, I hope will bring a smile to your face. Or at least, get you to start removing that wall paper.

From Susan Ohanian:
I mourn the loss of my soul brother, friend, and great champion of young people. He started the World of Opportunity in Birmingham, Alabama to right the injustice of students terminated by the public school system. The door at the WOO is always open for students to get a second chance. . . and a third and a fifteenth, when need be.

Steve, your spirit fills the streets of Birmingham and the hearts of all who were privileged to know you.

Susan has been sending contributions to the WOO from the sale of this CD:
Order the CD of the resistance:
"No Child Left Behind? Bring Back the Joy."
To order online (and hear samples from the songs)
Other orders: Send $15 to
Susan Ohanian
P. O. Box 370
Charlotte, VT 05445

Another way to assist Glenda Jo in keeping The WOO running.

Support the World of Opportunity!
Start your shopping at

Thanks to John Lawhead for these pics of Steve when we visited the WOO in '03


Anonymous said...

Thanks for these notes, Norm.

Steve was a amazing grassroots activist with a lot of heart.

Anonymous said...

An email send a few weeks ago:

Dear Steve and Glenda Jo,
I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to spend time together when you were in NYC. Although the circumstances were not the best, it was a very special evening for me. We haven`t known each other very long, but the feelings I have for you developed so rapidly from the first time we met in Birmingham. I believe that is because it is not often that you get to meet people who are as principled as you are. Those principles don`t exist solely in your brain, but in your heart and in your actions. That is what impressed me from that first meeting--how u live what you believe in. You also have a wonderful ability for letting people know that they are important to you. Within a few minutes of meeting you, I felt comfortable and at ease because you let me into your world. You did it in a quiet, welcoming way that was humble yet confident. I could sense your inner strength and control, but it was your humility that really touched me.
My husband showed me the email that you sent to him, after he told you about his cancers. I appreciated the effort that you made to write to him. It was very comforting for both of us. The email that you sent reinforced an image that I have of you. The image is that of a guide--someone who helps to bring others out of the darkness into the light. May the light of peace be with you now and always.

ed notes online said...

Gloria Pipkin Note to her list:

Steve Orel, a student advocate and anti-high-stakes testing activist
from Birmingham, AL, died at his home early today, after a two-year
battle with cancer. Steve was fired from his job as an adult education instructor in June of 2000, after he blew the whistle on Birmingham City Schools for pushing out--involuntarily withdrawing-
-522 high school students a few weeks before state tests were given, when the school system was under threat of take-over by the state due to low test scores.

In partnership with a Catholic lay order, the Salesians, Steve opened
the World of Opportunity, "a civil rights, social justice, educational, and job readiness program" in the Gate City area of Birmingham. Many of the pushed-out students enrolled at the WOO, which is now independent of the Salesians and continues to serve as a haven for the community. As a member of Advocates of Children and Teachers National Organizing Workshop (ACT-NOW), I joined activists from around the country in honoring Steve Orel and the World of Opportunity with the Courage in
Education Award in 2003, at a conference held at the WOO.

Steve Orel's account of the pushouts, titled "Left Behind in Birmingham: 522 Pushed-out Students," is featured in Silent No More: Voices of Courage in American Schools (Heinemann, 2003). Donations to the WOO in Steve's memory may be made to the following address:

World of Opportunity
7429 Georgia Road
Birmingham, AL 35212-2921

Steve often signed email with these lines from a United Mine Workers
song, and they exemplify his philosophy, which we might also apply to our struggles against the most pernicious aspects of the FCAT:

Step by step the longest march, can be won, can be won.
Many stones can form and arch, singly none, singly none.
And by union what we will, can be accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.

Rest in peace, Steve.


Anonymous said...

Our world is a much sadder place today with the death of Steve Orel. A better person would be hard to find. He was a no bullshit kind of guy -- he was direct and fearless and was as humble a human being that you could ever find. When you spoke with him he listened intently to whatever you had to say without interruption -- he really gave you the feeling that he wanted to understand exactly how you viewed an issue.

After he found out that I also had been diagnosed with cancer, he went out of his way to make a connection with me. He wanted to know every last detail and what I was doing about it. This at the same time he was suffering through agony that no human being should ever have to face. Despite the fact that he knew he was not going to win this battle, he fought it with the same intensity he fought all the other enemies he had faced. He did it without complaint and in fact continued to do his work at his beloved WOO.

Please celebrate life by making a contribution to the WOO to help Glenda Jo Orel and the rest of the fine people who will continue on with the much needed work of the WOO.

I should also say that the support and love that Glenda Jo gave Steve throughout his long battle was an inspiration for all of us and a display of selflessness that we rarely see in our world anymore.


ed notes online said...

Susan Ohanian to her list:

Gloria Pipkin, coordinator of the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform, and I discovered we are soul sisters through the miracles of e-mail, and then we were lucky enough to meet Brother Steve through this same medium. Gloria and I cyber chatted constantly with Steve during his work at the WOO. It was a unique exchange: hilarious, heartbreaking, toughminded, and inspirational. We shared info, asked questions, argued about answers. . . and learned to remain watchful for Brother Steve's sly leg pulling.