“Mr. O is the reason I am a teacher,” said Sean Kenney, a Geibel Catholic Jr/Sr High School 1987 alumnus.
He pushed me to strive for excellence and not settle for just being a “good” math student. Because of him, I did very well on my SATs and got into my dream college – Notre Dame.”
Reaching Each Student
A math teacher at Polytech High School in Delaware, Sean added, “I’m able to sense where a kid is having issues and help out. Mr. O was a master at that.”
Dr. Justin Frantz, ’92, a physics professor at Ohio University agrees. He commented, “Everyone loved his class, even people that weren’t necessarily doing so well. As an educator now, I’ve realized just how hard that really is.
I remember one time he was trying to explain to some older students how to do the derivative in calculus, and he drew me into the conversation as I was walking by. I was only a sophomore in geometry at the time, but he was able, literally in less than one sentence, to explain to me a trick of how to do the derivative, which then demonstrated to the older students really how easy it was.”
It’s OK to Be Yourself
Known as Mr. O by the more than 3,000 students he had during his forty-two year career at the small Catholic high school, Larry taught more than algebra, calculus, trigonometry, physics, and geometry.
Sean commented, “He built a classroom culture that is unsurpassed. Mr. O wore bow ties, sang, danced, and showed how life can be great if you just try to be yourself.
You ask any of his students and undoubtedly they will mention his “Pythagorean Theorem Song” lesson as the one they remember the most. But that lesson wasn’t just about the math. It was about showing kids that it is ok to have fun, be weird, sing, and take risks.”
A Playground for the Mind
They included his hand-made origami crane hanging from the ceiling and paper polyhedral model resting on a cloth-covered stand, math-based puzzles placed all around the room, readings of James Joyce, a New Yorker magazine displayed and all things interesting in-between.
Larry remarked, “While some might call it clutter, I like to think of it as personal texture. The room was peppered with pop culture and literary illusions!”
“All these things made his classroom a place that you just associated with “fun” and you just liked being there. So in my classes in physics I always try to add some of these kinds of “digressions” to keep it interesting,” said Justin.
Larry likes the description of his room as a “Playground for the Mind” offered by fellow Geibel teacher Justin Stevenson.
This whimsical learning environment may not have happened if it were not for a Christmas gift Larry received from his wife, Marge, in 1974 when his career was just getting underway.
It was a book on how to write calligraphy. But it became so much more.
Larry explained, “I used the book to teach myself calligraphy and liked it so much, I wanted to learn more so I sought out the best teacher I could find. I found out it was Arnold Bank, a NYC artist who was teaching calligraphy at Carnegie Mellon University and took his class.
Arnold threw the whole toolbox up in the air. I used his approach every day in my teaching – how he interacted with the kids. He would talk about things that were happening right now. He was transformational in my life. He taught me how to live in the moment.”
And according to Colleen Staines Conko, ‘82, “there was never a dull moment!”
She explained, “One day in physics class we were doing scaling figures. Mr. O pretended he was a store clerk at a home improvement store.
He posed the question to the class, ‘If you wanted to double the area of your garden, by what factor would you change the linear dimensions? We were the customers and had to come up with material amounts for fencing based on our calculations.
Mr O approached a classmate who had not yet come up with his response and asked, ‘Can I help you?’ The student paused and looking calmly up at him stated, ‘No thanks, I’m just looking!’ The classroom erupted with laughter.
He slowly turned his back to us wearing a slight grin. We could see his shoulder movement and knew he was laughing. He appreciated the humor, but attempted to stay in character and continue with his inquiry about the fencing.”
Singing and Dancing Geometry
After serving as a math teacher for two decades, Colleen had the honor of taking over Larry’s class when he retired four years ago. She has since returned to public education, where most of her career had been spent, and is now teaching at the Adelphoi Robert Ketterer Charter School, an alternative school in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
“I carried what I learned from Mr. O into my classes. I have since added a dance to go with the Pythagorean Theorem song. In my most recent teaching evaluation, it was noted that ‘students are completely engaged’ and ‘they are singing and dancing geometry.’”
A senior wrote me a note after graduation that read, ‘You made me interested in school again.’ I credit Mr. O for making class interesting for me and giving me the ability and desire to do the same for my students.”
The Camera on the Desk
The interest Paul Ruggieri, ’83, discovered while sitting in Larry’s homeroom class also became life-changing.
“Mr. O kept a 35mm camera on his desk and I was drawn to it. Every day I asked him questions about it that he patiently answered. One day, he sent me home with the camera saying, ‘Learn how to use this, we need a yearbook photographer.’
I shot thousands of images over the next four years and gained enough confidence to seek professional opportunities. My mother had to drive me to my first assignment with a local newspaper as I was only 15 years old.”
Today, Paul is a 27-time Emmy Award winning video photo-journalist for the PBS Pittsburgh affiliate WQED-TV. He remarked, “Mr. O took me seriously, patiently trained me, and helped me develop the confidence to step out into the world.”
Moving Students Forward
It was Larry’s guidance that opened up a new world of possibilities for Susan Reilly Landahl, ‘78, a nuclear engineer and senior executive at Exelon Corporation.
“I remember Mr. O encouraging me to apply to MIT – and I am sure he also wrote a letter of recommendation for my application! His encouragement had a lot to do with getting me there. He had a way of motivating students just by both challenging and believing in them.”
And this encouragement wasn’t limited to the school day. Larry supported and moved students forward by, among other things, instituting the high school’s very first musical production, attending student events, and offering a calligraphy class to students.
Susan was one of his calligraphy students. “There were only a few of us the first time he taught it, and we’d meet Mondays after school. Then when the other kids saw how cool it was there were dozens who wanted to get into the next session.” She still uses those skills today.
Trading Chalk for Pen
At home, Larry traded his chalk for a pen working as a freelance calligrapher. And he continued learning from accomplished artists around the country.
In the past forty one years, he has produced hundreds of expressive calligraphic inscriptions for individuals and clients, including American Greetings, Gibson Greetings, Printery House, Abbey Press and Paper Magic.
His creations can be found on Etsy.com at LarryOrlandoDesign. They include signature special occasion Roundels, as well as Letterpressed, 3D, hand-cut, Pop up, and other specialty cards. He also writes many addressed wedding envelopes and wedding invitations.
How did Larry master both calligraphy and a teaching career? You might say both are equal to the sum of their parts.
He commented, “Arnold Bank told me the best calligraphers are mathematicians. It’s because graphic art is a lot of math. It takes symmetry. Beauty depends on symmetry for scaling and sizing.”
This perfect balance has given Larry a passion and purpose that has touched an immeasurable number of lives.
Justin remarked, “The most important legacy he left me personally with was that only developing my mathematical skills wasn’t good enough. It was also important to develop more diverse intellectual and artistic skills.
His mentoring led us to achieve more than we would have otherwise, and expand our minds in new ways.”
Yes, it’s fair to say that Larry Orlando has mastered the art.