Janet Orndorff remembered for her public service

From a one-room schoolhouse to governing one of Idaho’s largest school districts, Janet Orndorff dedicated her life to education. Before her death, she said: “I gain great joy in knowing that in some small way, I have made the lives of our children better, happier and more productive and more capable of becoming wonderful role models for the next generation.”

Orndorff, a trained teacher, full-time volunteer and devoted wife and mother, died in her home

Janet Orndorff
Janet Orndorff

March 28 after a battle with breast cancer. She was 68. Her funeral on Thursday at Cathedral of the Rockies was attended by some of the top figures in Idaho education.

Boise School District Superintendent Don Coberly spoke and recognized Orndorff for her strength and compassion.

“She was the most generous vehicle of grace I’ve ever known,” he said. “She lived by example every day.”

Those at her funeral shared their gratitude for the positive influence she had on the Boise community and K-12 education, which permeated well beyond her impressive resume. She spent 23 years as a member of the Boise School District’s Board of Trustees. She helped launch organized youth soccer, create an Idaho history experience for fourth graders, develop a steady donations effort for needy children and coordinate in-depth and statewide training for school trustees.

“She did things that really made a difference,” said Juno Van Ocker, a long-time friend. “An ordinary person could not have accomplished what she did in her life.”

Janet Orndorff may be most remembered for her work as a school trustee, serving on the Boise School Board and being an elected officer in the Idaho School Boards Association. She lobbied and testified before the Legislature, spearheaded the effort to rewrite her district’s policy manual and she advocated for the preservation and renovation of Boise High School.

“Janet was our rock and our anchor for sound judgement,” Coberly said. “Janet was my friend.”

Orndorff spent many days traveling around the state to assist with the Light House Project, a program for training school board trustees.

“She was my mentor,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, a lawmaker and trustee from the Bonneville Joint School District in Idaho Falls. “We’d talk for hours in a parking lot about policy. She inspired me.”

She was politically savvy. She was active in the campaign to repeal Students Come First. As she fought cancer in January, confined to her bed, she summoned her best friend to ask what was happening in the Legislature.

“She was a smart, smart lady,” said Van Ocker. “And very unassuming.”

She was critical in saving the Bown House, an historic 1879 home that was on her school district’s property. The district wanted to tear down the home to build another school when she stepped in to protect it. She was one of the founding board members of the Bown House Heritage Program and was instrumental in restoring the home and creating an innovative heritage education program for fourth grade field trips and community visits. Students learn first-hand what it was like to live in the 1880s

Those closest to Janet saw perfection in most of what she did.

“She was a wonderful wife and mother and grandmother,” said Van Ocker. “And the impact she had, for just one person, was amazing. She worked so hard. Everything was always perfect.”

Orndorff grew up in St. Johns, Mich., and earned her elementary education degree and a master’s degree in reading instruction from Michigan State.

“I was naturally drawn to helping the younger children at my school,” Orndorff said in her own biography. “That was the beginning of a lifelong interest in doing whatever I could to help the children around me.”

Janet and her husband Owen Orndorff move to Boise in 1974 where he began a successful law career. Janet taught in the Boise School District from 1975-79 but with Owen’s success, was able to quit working. Her volunteer career began by reading books to children and helping with fundraisers. Her work eventually became more sophisticated. She helped coordinate a successful bond election and was repeatedly elected to the Boise School District Board of Trustees where she hired superintendents, balanced budgets and approved the vision of the state’s second largest district.

Her other devotion was the Assistance League of Boise where she volunteer for 33 years. She helped invent the ALB’s successful thrift shop, which is run by volunteers and produces money that purchases new school clothes and supplies for Boise’s low-income children.

“I couldn’t find any pictures of her working at the Assistance League because she was always behind the scenes, where the real work is done, instead of out front getting her picture taken,” Van Ocker said.

The Orndorff’s three children all graduated from Boise schools and they have nine grandchildren.

Her daughter Lori Dingel wrote this in her mother’s obituary: ‘To her children, she was a kind, smart, reliable, helpful, funny, patient mother who showed her unconditional love many times.
To her husband, she was a beautiful, loyal, hard-working wife. She made dinner, kept house, and loved him more than anyone can love. She was a fun-loving, positive person who drew others into her. He didn’t like sharing her, but knew that he would have to, for that was who she was: a champion for the betterment of her community and family. That is how we will remember her and she is forever in our hearts and memories as such.”

A biography by Janet Orndorff

“I am only one, but still I am one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.”  — Helen Keller

“You each have the power to change the lives of those around you. You can motivate and inspire. You can empower those with whom you work to accomplish things that seem
impossible.” — My version of a quote from Getting Started by Robert Eaker, Richard DuFour, and Rebecca DuFour

I keep the above quotations on my bulletin board. The words continue to inspire me in my efforts (along with a lot of other folks) to make a better life and future for Idaho’s children.

Janet Orndorff
Janet Orndorff

I was born and raised on a small farm in Michigan. I attended a one-room school. Even at a fairly young age, I was naturally drawn to helping the younger children at my school. I guess that was the beginning of a lifelong interest in doing whatever I could to help the children around me.

My interest in helping children led me into teaching – first in the elementary grades and later at the junior high school level. I loved working with the kids and helping them overcome challenges. One Monday morning I greeted a boy as he entered my junior high remedial reading class. I mentioned that I had been thinking about him that weekend and wanted to try some new techniques that I thought would help him. His eyes opened wide in disbelief. He couldn’t comprehend the idea that a teacher would think about him specifically. (I couldn’t comprehend doing it any other way.)

Even when I am doing a task that doesn’t involve children, I often find a way to make the connection. I was chairman of the ASSISTANCE LEAGUE® of Boise program, Shopping Ala Carte, a nursing home project. During that time, I organized a pen pal program with first grade students at Maple Grove Elementary. At the end of the school year, we had a big party at the nursing home so the students could meet their pen pal “grandparents”. The students learned new writing skills and gained a loving relationship with a senior citizen. The nursing home residents loved the attention given them by the little ones.

Some people might ask why I do what I do. I guess the answer is that I gain great joy in knowing that in some small way I have made the lives of our children better, happier, more productive and more capable of becoming wonderful role models for the next generation.

Jennifer Swindell

Jennifer Swindell

Managing editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell founded Idaho Education News in 2013. She has led the online news platform as it has grown in readership and engagement every year, reaching over two million pageviews a year. Jennifer has more than 35 years of experience in Idaho journalism. She also has served as a public information officer for Idaho schools and as a communication director at Boise State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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