By Tony Pennington

Transcript Staff Writer

James Harris Orenbaun made his home in Burbank, Calif., but his roots, like lifelines, ran deeper than the Grand Canyon and stretched across multiple states to Norman.

The more than 30 years he spent in southern California couldn’t undo his dedication to the community and more importantly, his mother Hazel Dean Harris Orenbaun.

“Jim was very devoted to Hazel,” said Gwen Woods, 88, an Orenbaun family friend for 26 years. “He had her out in California and visited on holidays. When she was sick, Jim took early retirement to come home and be with her so she could stay in her house. Jim promised her.”

The bond between mother and child was strengthen by the death of Jim’s father Jack. The single-mother and only child learned to lean on each other for support and comfort. When Hazel died in 1996, at the age of 90, Jim honored her with a bench on the University of Oklahoma campus. It was placed along the path she took as a home economics student during the 1920s.

Woods would often drive Jim through Norman on his extended stays. She said he always wanted to see the same sites.

“He loved visiting the old familiar spots of growing up, and places he went to school,” she recalled.

Jim was a graduate of Norman High School’s class of 1951. Education was stressed in the Orenbaun household. Hazel was a longtime educator for Norman Public Schools. She taught fourth, fifth and sixth grades for the district at the original Washington Grade School. She retired in 1971, after 26 years of service.

And through a generous donation of $250,000 in his mother‘s name, future NPS students will realize what Jim knew his whole life, Hazel was a very special person.

Following his death in February from lung cancer, the trust named after Jim was instructed to award two gifts in Norman. NPS is slated for the funds from Jim’s IRA account and McFarlin Memorial Methodist Church will receive his California property. These benevolent acts might come as a surprise to some as Jim was a reserved individual.

“Jim developed lung cancer in 1992,” said James Harris Orenbaun Trust trustee Dr. Herman Curiel, associate professor of the school of social work at the University of Oklahoma. “He was very private. He didn’t tell very many people. He didn’t tell me until his mother died, and asked me if I would serve as the trustee.”

Curiel wasn’t a stranger to Hazel and Jim. He lived in the same neighborhood as Hazel and often assisted her with errands and chores.

“I volunteered to do her grocery shopping or whatever she wanted done,” he said. “She was just so nice.”

It was through his interactions with Hazel that Curiel met Jim. The two would become fast friends. Curiel would visit with the two when Jim was in Oklahoma. And when he was in California visiting family, Curiel had to make time to hang out with Jim. It wasn’t until Jim’s death Curiel found out how deep that friendship ran.

“I was honored by reading his correspondence,” said Curiel about the period he spent putting Jim’s affairs in order. “He listed me as his best friend.”

And like the best friend he is Curiel is set to enact Jim’s last wishes. It is one of those requests that has Dr. Joseph Siano, superintendent of Norman Public Schools, thankful.

“We certainly appreciate James Orenbaun and the Orenbaun family for their consideration of Norman Public Schools,” he said. “It will honor Hazel’s work, the school’s work and the community.”

Siano is not sure when the money will arrive or how the district will utilize the funds. He mentioned a possible ongoing opportunity for students, but at this time he wanted reflect on how to best use the gift.

“However we decide,” he said, “it will benefit as many students in the district as possible.”

And through death the reluctant and private man has preserved his mother’s name for generations of students like the ones she instructed for more than 25 years.

“She was very dedicated to education all of her life,” Woods said. “The school was one of the most important things Jim wanted to share his estate with.”

Tony Pennington


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