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Bill Orr, who embraced the role of Nebraska's groundbreaking first gentleman with gusto and great humor during his wife's historic governorship, died at home in Lincoln early Sunday. 

Orr's good-natured, gender-neutral decision to publish the "First Gentleman's Cookbook" was a huge hit, attracting national attention and selling thousands of copies. Proceeds helped raise funds to refurbish the Governor's Residence.

Kay Orr was elected as Nebraska's first female governor in 1986 and served one four-year term. While the cookbook became the signature memory of Bill Orr's accompanying four years, he comfortably and joyfully played the supporting role.

Bill Orr was 78; the Orrs had been married for 55 years.

"My grandfather combined his sense of humor with practical advice on everything from plumbing to financial planning," Taylor Gage of Lincoln said. 

"And he was cracking his usual one-liners up to the very end."

A month after his wife's election, Bill Orr already was considering authoring a cookbook. At first, he was thinking in terms of a one-page volume and had identified nine recipes, three of which were mixed drinks.

In a 1986 interview, Orr said it might be best to pray after, rather than before, he ate his own prepared meals.

Orr was senior vice president and director of agency and marketing operations for Woodmen Accident and Life Co. when his wife was elected governor.

"Hey, it's a new part of our lives," Orr said at the time. "And I'm going to enjoy the ride."

A month before Kay Orr took office, Bill Orr had no trouble keeping it all in perspective.

When they returned from a post-election vacation, he revealed during that 1986 interview, they found a note from the housekeeper informing them the White House had called to invite the governor-elect to have breakfast with the president. The note concluded: "I'm out of Comet and stool cleanser."

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His grandfather "shared so many memories over the years," Gage said.

The family always has been closely connected by geography and faith.  Gage grew up two blocks away from where his grandparents resided, living in the same house his mother had grown up in, and he saw his grandparents almost every day. 

"I learned very practical things from him," Gage said. 

"He believed in conservative principles. He was faithful spiritually. He struggled with COPD with great fortitude, and I believe that reflected his character."

Orr retired from Woodmen in 1997 after 37 years with the company. 

Sen. Deb Fischer described Orr as "a gracious gentleman steeped in faith (and) a loving father and a loyal friend to those of us privileged to know him."

Sen. Mike Johanns said Orr was "a successful businessman whose love for Nebraska was eclipsed only by his love for his family."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or  dwalton@journalstar.com.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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