© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Obituary of Robert H. Orchard: Businessman and unconventional patron of the arts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2012 - Robert Orchard, a businesman who became a prodigious and unorthodox promoter of the arts, especially opera, in St. Louis, died Saturday at his home in Frontenac.  He was 91.

Mr. Orchard, who had heart problems for the past 30 years, died in his sleep, said a son, Harry Orchard.

The date for a memorial service will be announced later.

Throughout his life, Mr. Orchard energetically shared his appreciation for paintings, dance, architecture, music and sculpture through his involvement and support of more than two dozen local and national arts organizations. 

“Bob was interested in getting the job done, whatever the job was – sculptures, art projects; he wasn’t interested in fame and glory,” said Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Mr. Orchard’s friend for more than 50 years. 

A man for all seasons

Mr. Orchard set out to preserve and restore the old – and introduce the new. 

None was newer – or more daring – than the first project he and Pulitzer worked on together: Richard Serra’s sculpture “Twain” in downtown St. Louis.  In 1982, Mr. Orchard commissioned the sculpture, made of eight, 40- and 50-foot Corten steel panels. They have been a source of controversy since.

It’s unlikely that the controversy caused Mr. Orchard much consternation.

“If Bob thought something was the right thing to do, he would do it; he didn’t need approval,” said Carolyn Losos, another 50-year friend. “He was one of these characters you were lucky if you got to meet in life. He was a man for all seasons.” 

His restoration efforts included portraits of St. Louis mayors, beginning with the city’s first mayor, William Carr Lane.  In the mid-‘90’s, Mr. Orchard was enlisted to raise funds to restore the portraits of Lane and most of his cohorts keeping watch on the corridor leading to the mayor's office in City Hall.

Sentries in St. Louis parks also received Mr. Orchard’s help.  One statue was a repeat beneficiary.    

The city’s namesake, St. Louis (King Louis IX of France), who sits high atop a pedestal in front of the Art Museum in Forest Park, arrayed in full battle gear, had his sword stolen. Mr. Orchard had a young sculptor cast a new sword; it, too, was stolen. 

“Bob told the sculptor just to make a bunch of swords,” said Lois Orchard, Mr. Orchard’s wife. “One by one, they would be stolen and one by one we’d have them slipped back into place.”

Portrait repair and sword replacements, commissioning the Serra sculpture, along with rebuilding Aloe Plaza across from Union Station, restoring George Washington in Lafayette Park and rehabbing the historic water towers on Grand, were among Mr. Orchard’s many projects during his service as chair of the St. Louis Ambassadors’ Arts and Fountains Foundation. 

“Mayor (Alfonso J.) Cervantes asked him to chair the committee; I think he was the chair and only member,” laughed Lois Orchard.  “He spent decades fixing something.”

Mr. Orchard was honored with the Ambassadors’ Spirit of St. Louis Award in 1996.  The previous year, he received the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis’ Excellence in the Arts Award for 30 years of generosity.

The music man uncensored

He loved all art, but especially music.  Opera defined him and he defined it. 

As host of KFUO radio’s "Opera Theater," Mr. Orchard spent 3 1/2 hours each Saturday afternoon introducing and playing a wide range of operas.  He incongruously called himself an “opera deejay.”  

After 27 years as the program’s deejay and director, he resigned his volunteer duties when told to remove some “bad words” from a pre-taped show.  The words were from Gaetano Donizetti’s opera, "Maria Stuarda." Mary Stuart calls Elizabeth I “a bastard” and Elizabeth calls Mary “a whore.” 

Mr. Orchard, known for his lively commentary, told the Post-Dispatch that he was describing a royal fight and he wasn’t going to say “You’re an illegitimate daughter!”

He had been there too long, he said, to be censored.

There was no shortage of organizations demanding his attention, like the University of Missouri’s Premiere Performances, where he served as board chair.

When the Post-Dispatch asked why he gave “his precious time and energies” to Premiere, he responded, "I'm damned if I know, but I enjoy music.”

“He was interested in accomplishing what he set out to do and what he set out to do was many wonderful things,” Pulitzer said. 

Mr. Orchard amassed a music library of more than 5,000 operatic recordings, which he shared widely. The originals are housed in the Library of Congress; copies are at several schools, including the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., Indiana University, Harvard University and Yale University. 

Appropriately, there is a copy of his music library at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.  Mr. Orchard was among the community leaders who participated in the founding of Opera Theatre in 1976. 

He also helped Richard Baron, president of McCormack Baron Salazar Inc., establish COCA (Center for Creative Arts) in 1986.

“He was an extraordinary individual who was instrumental in the creation of COCA,” Baron said. “Without his involvement, it would have been very difficult for me to have raised the funds to launch COCA.”


Robert Harry Orchard, the son of Herman Charles Orchard and Ethel Winner Orchard, was born in St. Louis on Christmas Eve 1920.  The family moved to Webster Groves, where he attended school through the ninth grade.  He transferred to Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, where he graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1938. He would later become a member of Mensa.

Shortly after graduating from Harvard University in 1942, in the middle of World War II, Mr. Orchard entered the Navy Reserve. He was commissioned an ensign and served in the North Pacific aboard the destroyer escort USS Gilmore.

Following his discharge in 1945, he joined the business his father founded, Orchard Paper Co., in the personnel department. He was promoted to vice president of sales in 1950, the same year he married Rochelle Friedberg of Los Angeles; the marriage ended in divorce. Following his father’s death in 1952, he was elected president and chief executive officer of the company. 

In 1966, Mr. Orchard sold the paper packaging business and formed a new company, Orchard Corporation of America, which provided rotogravure printing of paper and plastic laminating materials for use in furniture, cabinets, countertops, flooring, packaging, housing, mobile homes and recreational vehicles

Under his leadership, the new company grew to include plants in England, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Israel and Taiwan.  When he retired in 1988, the company was sold to Borden, Inc. for stock and cash valued at more than $37 million.

In retirement, Mr. Orchard became a founding partner in Retail Star, Inc., a sports clothing chain, and the Crown Optical Co. vision care chain.  He also became a partner in Bromer Booksellers, a rare book dealer in Boston, and a minor partner with McCormack Baron and Associates, to build new homes in the Central West End.

Magic carpet ride

Mr. Orchard was preceded in death by his parents, his sister, Marjorie Lichtor, and a son, Jack Lampl Orchard, who died in 2009 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease).  

He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Lois Newman Orchard, who called their marriage “a magic carpet ride.” 

He is also survived by his children, Constance Orchard (Peter) Hoffman, who is on the Beacon's  board, Jay Robert Orchard and Harry Charles (Elizabeth) Orchard, all of St. Louis. Additional survivors include his brother, Edgar Lewis (Donna) Orchard, of Louisiana, Mo., and five grandchildren, Drew and Claire Hoffman, and Ethan, Lillian and Penelope Orchard.

Services are pending.

Memorials would be appreciated to the Jack Orchard Fund at John Burroughs School, Attn: Jim Kemp, 755 South Price Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63124. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.