By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Cheryl Orillion was less than a month into her new role as the principal of Sacred Heart of Jesus Elementary School in Norco.
The little school had everything – a good faculty, some of whom Orillion had been able to recruit from her previous job a few years earlier as principal at St. Benilde School in Metairie, and wide open spaces for the students to explore during outside recess – but it didn’t have two nickels to rub together.
Or one television set.
Cheryl’s husband Steve had seen the jets commandeered and piloted by terrorists slam into the Twin Towers, and now the southern tip of Manhattan was on fire.
From their Metairie home, Steve called Cheryl to see if she knew what was going on.
When she told him no, Steve drove to Norco with the family’s TV set.
“I set it up and talked to her for a few minutes in her office,” Steve recalled, before walking outside.
Twenty minutes later, Cheryl strolled up and asked Steve, “What are you still doing here?”
“That was my signal to leave,” Steve said, smiling.
When Cheryl Orillion died of liver cancer Oct. 20 at the age of 68, she left behind memories chiseled in granite during 48 years in Catholic education, a vocation through which she forged schools of academic and spiritual excellence on budgets consisting largely of five loaves, two fish and one vision.
“This might sound corny,” Steve said, “but I believe she could’ve walked with the Lombardis and the Belichicks and the Sabans, because she was as focused on her job as they were on theirs. There was nothing else. The only things that meant something to her in life were her family and whatever school she was in at the time.”
Nathaniel Bartley, the custodian at Holy Rosary School for students with different learning styles and academic challenges, was part of the Orillion tree of faculty and staff, having moved with her from St. Benilde to Sacred Heart and finally to Holy Rosary in 2015.
Bartley, 56, has struggled for many years with diabetes, and he remembers how his former principal made sure he had full health coverage and then took his medicine regularly.
“She told me, ‘You’ve got to take care of yourself because I need you and we need each other,’” Bartley said. “My momma died on me, and Miss Orillion was like a momma to me. She was good people.”
When St. Benilde was up for the national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award in 1999, Bartley recalls recruiting his entire family – his wife, two daughters and his brother – to make sure the school had a spit-polish shine before the site visit from federal education officials.
“I was right there on it,” Bartley said. “It was like teamwork – everybody, teachers, we all did our part.”
That was why Bartley didn’t mind one bit when Orillion called him one Sunday afternoon to clean up the Holy Rosary schoolyard on Napoleon Avenue after a Mardi Gras parade because, she said, “nobody’s going to do it like you do.”
“It was March 4, but she didn’t know it was my birthday,” Bartley said. “She apologized when she found out and said she was sorry. But I went there that Sunday because I wanted to make sure it was right. We needed each other.”
No detail too small
Orillion had Eisenhower’s mastery of preparation. Orillion had served as an assistant principal at St. Matthew the Apostle School for two years when she applied in 1994 for the principal’s position at St. Benilde. She had heard that the Sisters of Loreto of Cork were leaving. Cheryl and Steve got to her interview early and parked the family van in the St. Benilde parking lot.
“We were actually sitting in the parking lot watching to see who the other candidates were as they went in,” Steve said, laughing. “She was a Lombardi guy. She did her homework.”
When Cheryl got the job, she was determined to make the transition from Sister Loreto Downing to a laywoman as smooth as possible.
“She wanted to follow a nun who had been principal at a school to prove that a layperson could keep up the Catholicity of a school,” Steve said. “Sister Loreto had left her notebooks, and in that first year, Cheryl did absolutely nothing different than Sister did. She was fanatical about it. The students called Cheryl ‘Sister’ for two years. The change at St. Benilde was so smooth it was unreal.”
She loved the Marianites
Actually, when Cheryl had graduated from Holy Angels Academy in 1968 – run by the Marianite Sisters – she entered the order and studied for three years without taking vows and then left to finish her college degree and become a teacher.
“We were both dancing school girls,” said Marianite Sister Judy Gomila, who was vocations director for the Marianites when Cheryl entered the community. “We loved to dance, and we would make up images about dancing and prayer – like Jesus being our partner or the image of the dancing school mirror, where we get to watch ourselves and we are called to mirror the Gospel.”
Cheryl and Sister Judy remained such good friends that the nun led about 20 retreats over the years for Cheryl’s faculties at different schools. The most recent one was this past August, when Cheryl asked Sister Judy to speak on the theme from the Book of Micah: “Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.”
“I didn’t really talk about social justice but about the way we treat one another,” Sister Judy said. “She was always big on people treating each other kindly. I always use the documents from Pope Paul VI: ‘People don’t listen to teachers, they listen to witnesses. And if they listen to teachers, it’s because they are witnesses.’ Cheryl always wanted to model care and respect for one another. I even played a little Aretha Franklin for them – R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
Who is that woman?
Cheryl and Steve had three sons – Matt, Nathan and Jonathon. Matt, 38, the father of four, is student activities director at Jesuit High School; Nathan, 36, runs a construction business; and Jonathon, 35, is a wrestling coach at Lorus College in Iowa.
All three sons wrestled in high school – Matt and Nathan won state championships and Jonathon was a state runner-up. Cheryl was a stunningly different person as a mom in the bleachers.
“Her screaming and yelling – that was so out of character,” Matt said. “She was always very proper and guarded.”
Matt got his first teaching job as a two-day-a-week P.E. instructor at St. Benilde, learning even more from his mother in her different role.
“It gave me a new insight into who she was and, honestly, I learned a lot about Catholic education in terms of what it means to be an administrator,” Matt said. “Her particular gift was knowing how to bring out the best in the students but also in the staff. She always had very little turnover because she would hire the best and bring out the best in them. They followed her from school to school.”
Cheryl thought nothing of making an enticing offer to a teacher she wanted to join her faculty at Sacred Heart in Norco. The teacher wanted to come, but her daughter was newly enrolled at Mount Carmel Academy and she would not be able to drop her off and then get to Norco in time.
“Don’t worry,” Cheryl told the teacher. “Steve can drop off your daughter.”
Getting her house in order
When it was clear three weeks ago that Cheryl was losing her battle with cancer, she asked, characteristically, for the unvarnished truth. Steve told her she was dying and there wasn’t a thing in the world he could do to change that.
Cheryl quickly transitioned into principal’s mode: Nathan, his wife and their four children would take over the family home “because they needed more space,” and Steve would find a smaller place to live.
“Cheryl, I love you dearly, but I’m not going with you, and I’ve got to survive,” Steve said. “Don’t be giving the farm away!”
“I saw a little tear coming out of her eye, so I grabbed a Kleenex to wipe her tear,” Steve said. “She told me, ‘I’m not the one that’s crying – you are!’”
After that, they waited for her pain to end.
They talked about how she could always console an emotionally distraught child with a hug. Just by placing her index finger and thumb together and making a zipper-like motion across her lips, from left to right, an entire classroom would fall suddenly silent.
“They talk about horse whisperers,” Steve said. “Cheryl was a child whisperer.”
In her final days, Cheryl was still taking calls from her Holy Rosary staff. Someone couldn’t find a file on a student. No one knew where it was.
“She woke me up at 4 in the morning and told me where to look for it on her computer,” Steve said. “I called the school and told them Cheryl had found what they were looking for.”
She died two days later.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.