That the future First Lady of Indiana started life as the daughter of an East-Coast department store magnate should come as no surprise. A more unlikely chapter in her biography might be the fact that Josie Orr flew fighter planes during World War 2.
When Joanne Wallace Orr moved into the Governor’s Residence in 1981, she’d been living in the Hoosier State since marrying the scion of the Orr Iron Company in 1944.
Josie, however, came from a family prominent in another part of the country. Her father was the heir to the Ford, Ford, and Wallace department store chain and a member of her mother’s family would serve in President Eisenhower’s cabinet.
Growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Josie Wallace attended a girls school where Martha Graham would come to teach ballet. Josie graduated from the world of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and polo ponies to the cotillions of New York and Boston, where she made her debut.
While studying home economics and secretarial skills, and working as a nurse’s aide, Josie enlisted in the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots. Reporting for Army Air Corps training in Texas, she went on to serve as squadron commander, ferrying war planes around North America.
After a six-year courtship with Bob Orr–who’d come East to attend Hotchkiss and then Yale—the pilot agreed to move to Evansville with her groom, who would be taking over the family business.
Josie Orr was instrumental in establishing the city’s Planned Parenthood chapter, and worked on behalf of the arts, historic preservation and social welfare there before the couple moved to the executive residence on Meridian Street.
Josie Orr—or rather, her Welsh Corgi—was the subject of an amusing incident in the annals of Hoosier trivia when, in 1988, Indiana-born talk-show host David Letterman suggested inviting the dog on to the “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment of his program to settle a dispute with the First Lady.
The first hound, incidentally, bore the quintessentially Hoosier name “Oliver P. Morton,” after Indiana’s 14th governor.
Josie Orr passed away in 2006, survived by three children and eight grandchildren.