Homegrown values have guided Belle Vernon native Orrison's success
He is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute who served in Vietnam and a civil engineer who has helped build golf courses, condominiums and highways.
And through all of those career assignments, John I. Orrison has never forgotten the lessons he received growing up in the Belle Vernon area.
“Although I have lived away from Belle Vernon most of my adult life, I have always appreciated my roots,” said Orrison, a 1963 graduate of Bellmar High School now living in Gainesville, Ga., a progressive city of 34,000 nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains 55 miles northeast of Atlanta. “Many people had an impact on me during those formative years and their guidance and words of wisdom remain with me today.”
Orrison, who turned 68 on Feb. 27, continues to bank on those homegrown experiences as managing principal and senior vice president of Draper and Associates' (Draper) Construction Services Division. He is supervising construction manager and senior contracts administration specialist with more than 45 years experience in construction management, project control and contract strategies.
Draper and Associates, which has offices in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is a consulting firm focused on formulating and implementing solutions to a wide range of business and management challenges.
“In short, we help organizations successfully facilitate change, manage growth and realize positive results,” Orrison said.
Orrison's background includes extensive experience in managing multi-disciplined, complex projects. He was both a design and construction manager for the $2 billion Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority construction program, served as area construction manager for the Pittsburgh Light Rail Rapid Transit System, was manager of design and construction for a South Carolina development company, served as principle-in-charge and board chairman for the pre-Olympics $100 million renovation of the Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport terminal and concourses and was project manager for a five tunnel renovation project in Tennessee, an eight-mile interstate widening in North Carolina and a multi-use transit facility in Greenville, S.C.
He has served as a senior advisor for design and construction on major domestic and international projects. His international engagements include developing contracting and construction oversight strategies for the Sao Paulo, Brazil Metro's $2 billion Line 5 privatization project, advisor to the Aruba Aviation Authority and master scheduler for the Kaohsiung Metro Transit System in the Republic of China.
Orrison has been a guest lecturer in construction management and claims, has held numerous industry teaching assignments and has conducted multiple seminars nationally including those presented by the U.S. General Services Administration. He has provided expert witness testimony and reports for cases in state, federal and international venues and has been involved as an analyst, negotiator and expert in construction claims with a total value of more than $1 billion.
“I have been fortunate to have seen many parts of the world,” Orrison said. “It's been a wonderful journey.”
Long before the globetrotting began, however, Orrison's most significant travels came in moving from one home to another in the Belle Vernon area.
“We lived at 526 Graham Street in North Belle Vernon until midway through the time I was in fourth grade,” he recalled. “Then we moved to 219 Vernon Avenue in Lynnwood.”
His parents were the late John Irvin Orrison and Dorothy Kirk Orrison. The elder Orrison, who was a metallurgist at the Monessen Plant of Pittsburgh Steel Company, was only 48 when he died on Nov. 13, 1966. His mother died at age 86 on May 3, 2004.
“My sisters, my brother and I were blessed with loving parents,” Orrison said. “My father taught me many things, the most important of which was that you are only as good as your word. From my mother I learned that God loves his children and will always be there when you need him.”
Orrison's siblings are Marjorie Sue (Margie) Hedley of Denver, N.C., Mary Lou Englert of Bethel Park and William K. (Bill) Orrison of Washington, Pa.
Other family in western Pennsylvania include a maternal aunt and uncle – Patricia K. Kirk and Ted Kirk – in Castle Shannon and myriad cousins “spread throughout the South Hills of Pittsburgh and the Waynesburg area.”
Orrison and his wife, the former Brenda Krebs of Morrisville, Pa., have been married for 25 years.
“Brenda is a construction attorney and we met while I was serving as an expert witness on one of her cases,” Orrison recalled.
Orrison is the father of three children.
His son Patrick Lowell Orrison, 36, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is a pilot for Qatar Airlines, is married and lives in Doha, Qatar. A daughter, Caitlin Frances Orrison, 32, graduated from Long Island University in New York City and is a bartender in Richmond, Va. The youngest daughter, Amanda Rose Orrison, 22, is studying interior design at Georgia Southern University.
“My wife and children have taught me a very valuable lesson in life – that is, that love transcends all,” Orrison said.
Orrison's educational credentials are as impressive as his professional track record.
A 1963 graduate of Bellmar High School, he received a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia in 1967. He also earned a master of business administration degree from Georgia State University in 1977.
He entered VMI on a full scholarship as the result of being a standout end with the Bellmar football teams coached by the legendary Baptiste “Bap” Manzini.
“Bap was simply the best coach I ever played for in any sport at any level,” said Orrison. “He could bring the best out of you through a mixture of fear and love. He was the consummate motivator. He taught us that we had unlimited potential if we were willing to work for it.”
In addition to his tenure at VMI, Orrison's military service included three years of active duty with the U.S. Army with assignments at Fort Belvoir in Virginia and deployment to Vietnam.
His professional career began with E.I. DuPont in Seaford, Del., where he worked for more than three years before moving to Atlanta.
Over the next dozen years, his engagements included the MARTA transit system construction in Atlanta as well as accepting a job with a resort development company building a golf course and ocean front condos in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“There also was one point in my career where I spent about five years commuting back and forth from Atlanta to Honolulu while I worked on the construction of Interstate H-3 on Oahu,” he said.
The fast pace of construction, contracts and consulting is a bit slower these days as Orrison enters an initial phase of retirement.
“I decided it was time to step back on the number of hours I work and give up my day to day management role with Draper and Associates,” he said. “I will still be involved with the firm as a mentor/advisor/marketing person. I'm looking forward to working with everyone here and helping the company in any way I can.”
As he does that, Orrison will likely be reminded of another poignant time in his life, one that spanned those formative years more than a half-century ago.
“Looking back on those days (in Belle Vernon), I would say that it was a safe environment in which to grow, make mistakes and learn,” he said. “The community protected us from going too far astray. We all stretched our limits, but the adults of the time were always looking out for us and making sure we stayed within the accepted norms for behavior.
“You could seldom go anywhere without seeing someone you knew. I think because of that, our parents were willing to let us be on our own more than most of today's parents would allow. Some days, I would leave the house in the morning and not return until suppertime. My Mom seemed to know that I would be all right without constantly checking on me.”
Orrison, who plans to attend this 50-year high school reunion on Sept. 14 at Seven Springs Resort in Champion, said his closest friends during those years were Tom Agnolucci, Jim Bair, Tom Connelly, Norman Reynolds, Bill Shook, Cramer (Skip) Gilmore, Darla Speers, Mel (Butch) Renkey and Chuck Trickett.
“We mainly played baseball and basketball outside of school,” he recalled. “I did some swimming at Crystal Pool in Fayette City and attended dances at school and the church. And I loved Joe's Pizza Shop.”
He also worked weekends and summers for George Boltz at his store, Dart Supply Company, which was located near the Dog House restaurant in Rostraver Township.
Orrison enjoys recounting those times with his Bellmar classmates.
“I have kept up with some of them over the years on visits back home, most notably Ray Moody and Russ Theakston,” he said. “The Internet and emails also have allowed me to rekindle great relationships with Vance Bunardzya, Tom Agnolucci, Pat Piersa Randall and Bob Batwinis.”
In all of that reminiscing, Orrison emphasizes one point about hometown values.
“(Author) Margaret Mitchell has a passage in ‘Gone With The Wind' where Scarlett O'Hara's father tells her that the red earth of the mansion Tara is in her blood,” he said. “Well, I think that the soot and red dog of western Pennsylvania is in our blood and it has made us what we are – and that is good.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.