Detroit is always looking for a hero — sometimes homegrown, sometimes a gunslinger from outside — who can walk into town, smile or glare as needed, and with a few twirls from the holster reinstate order and a sense of peace.
From Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to Detroit Public Schools emergency financial manager Robert Bobb, confident entrances have been the triumphant moments; historically, the exits have been less heralded.
Now new Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has walked through the swinging doors, exhibiting a combination of quick wit, personal charm and the untested ammo of executive power backed up by the threat of municipal bankruptcy.
Orr's credentials and personal skills have won him a honeymoon. Everyone from law school buddies to partners and adversaries hail his competence and all-round good-guy-ness.
Stephen Brogan, his law partner and mentor, recalls joking about Orr's memory and curiosity: "What are you, Wikipedia?" he asked, when they were newly acquainted.
It's tempting to imagine this University of Michigan-educated lawyer, whose energy and youthful features belie his 54 years, might somehow prevail.
"He's always liked helping people," says Dorothy Orr, his mother and a pioneering Florida educator.
Both his parents (his father is deceased) earned doctorates (hers in education; his in chemistry), and his three siblings all earned advanced degrees. But Kevyn Orr is also the survivor of family tragedy: His older brother died in an auto accident; his younger brother of adult-onset diabetes while a college student.
Now he, the surviving son, is taking up the call to action — resigning from his law firm, commuting to a family that includes a wife and two young children.
Brogan, his law partner, told him that some opportunities are thrust on you. "This is one of the great cities in the history of our country. It needs the help you can give them right now."
Orr called to tell his mother that he wanted to help Detroit. "I'm going to pray hard," she replied.
Orr grew up in Florida at a time when civil rights were still being won. His mother was the first black administrator in her school district, but her son was born in a segregated clinic. He said he grew up knowing "black folks couldn't go to Palm Beach." He's a man who understands the need to straddle roles, to "be driven by a spreadsheet" while making it clear he has sacrificed personally and financially to help the city survive, not die.
He understands text and subtext, the imagery of coming in from outside, of Detroit's status as the largest majority-black city. "I understand the need to be sensitive," he says.
His mother remembers him as being the kind of child everybody liked, "black, white, it didn't matter. He was friends with everybody."
By first grade, he wanted to be a lawyer. Orr's mother earned a master's degree in Ann Arbor and remembers talking to her son about the school's ivy-covered law school. "It opened the world to me," she says.
That link reverberated years later, bringing the outsider in. Now he is prepared to bring his intellect and firepower — both considerable — to bear on Detroit's problems.
"I've got guns. We are not afraid," he joked Friday about negotiating with creditors. A day after signing on to tackle a job many deem impossible, the amiable gunslinger was displaying a full range of humanity — firm yet sensitive — and showing no perceptible signs of aging.
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