By Susan White
UNC School of Social Work faculty members, staff, family and friends gathered on April 18 to honor Dennis K. Orthner, professor and associate director for Policy Development and Analysis at the Jordan Institute for Families. Event photos
Orthner retired this year after more than 45 years of collective service in research and education, including at colleges and universities in North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.
The late John Turner, former dean of UNC’s School of Social Work, hired Orthner in 1988. Then a professor at the University of Georgia, Orthner was viewed as someone who could kickstart the School’s research funding, which at the time, was practically non-existent, noted current Dean Jack M. Richman. At UNC, Orthner helped to establish the School’s Human Services Research and Design Laboratory, which promoted and supported faculty research interests.
Orthner’s early work was the “bedrock” for the beginning of the School’s journey toward becoming the research force that it is today, Richman said.
“In 1988, we were an average School of Social Work in a great University and John’s intent when he convinced you to come here was to work and plan to make us a great School of Social Work in a great University,” Richman said. “The Human Services Research and Design Laboratory was the beginning of this process and as you added your considerable efforts and leadership to the Jordan Institute for Families and the myriad of research projects, funded programs, junior faculty and Ph.D. and MSW student mentoring, and curricula innovation, the School grew in stature and capacity. John Turner’s dream … is now a reality.”
During his tenure at Carolina, Orthner continued to focus his own research on issues affecting vulnerable children and families, including poverty and public education. During the retirement ceremony, he was recognized, among other things, for his contributions to student success. Since 2004, Orthner has partnered with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on CareerStart, an intervention program that has helped to keep more students in school by teaching them to connect lessons in the classroom to future career opportunities. Today, CareerStart serves thousands of students in more than a handful of school systems across the state.
Orthner was also praised for his long-standing commitment and work in helping to improve the welfare of military families. Over the course of his career, Orthner has served as: chief scientist for the Army Family Research Program; evaluation director for a federally sponsored program to develop and provide “Essential Life Skills for Military Families” to active and reserve component families across the country; and director of the National Demonstration Program for Citizen-Soldier Support, a community capacity building effort to support military personnel and families in the National Guard and Reserves.
Orthner’s service to the military received special attention at the School ceremony, during which he was presented with a framed American flag. The flag was once flown on the USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides,” the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy.
Following the reception, Orthner said he felt “truly blessed by the generosity,” shown to him and to his wife, Barbara.
“The School of Social Work has been and is a very special place, and I am honored to have been part of this faculty and community,” he said.
“May we all continue to do our best to make a positive difference in the lives of all those who we are called to serve.”