Two years ago, Memphis University School senior Patton Orr attended his first TED Talks conference, and a fire was lit inside him. TED Talks, for the uninitiated, is a nonprofit dedicated to “ideas worth spreading.” The talks are given in 18 minutes or less at conferences and independent TED events, and then released as videos on YouTube.
The topics range widely, but Orr had one specific goal in mind after attending his first talk: Bringing TED to Memphis.
“Memphis is the largest small town in America and there are always special connections here,” Orr explains. “We think of ourselves as a community, not a zip code. When I decided I wanted to bring TED Talks to Memphis, it was because I wanted to do something special for Memphis.”
A TEAM EFFORT
I discover during our interview over coffee that Patton Orr is not like most teens. The 18-year-old holds your gaze when speaking and is extremely self-assured. He’s learned how to speak eloquently, has a point to make with every answer, and stays on topic. Though barely an adult, I soon realize there’s no one better to represent TED’s mission.
But Orr doesn’t take total credit for organizing the day-long event, which featured 17 local speakers last month at the University of Memphis. “I’m honestly surprised I keep getting singled out,” he says humbly. “It really was a team effort of alumni, sponsors, and MUS organizers. Our main concern was making an impact in the city.”
Once Orr hatched the plan, MUS called on alum Luke Jensen, a 2007 graduate who now works at Cushman & Wakefield, to provide the teen mentorship. Also helpful was Robert Fudge, a fine arts instructor at MUS, who designed the stage and kept the program on schedule. And then there were Orr’s friends: 50 fellow students who volunteered their time for the day.
“It was incredible to see my friends rise to the occasion and get the job done in a very professional manner,” he states proudly. “So many people commented that they were surprised such a large event was run by high school students. It’s not that surprising to me, though. MUS’s mission is the development of well-rounded young men.”
Life after ted
The idea for the event first took root two years ago when Orr’s older sister turned him on to hundreds of archived TED Talks on YouTube. The teen quickly gained an appreciation for their short, inspirational messages. After attending his first conference in Canada at age 16, Orr decided it was time to bring TED Talks to Memphis, and the rest has been a result of his dedication and focus.
Along with his team, Orr attributes his success to his faith. He attends Second Presbyterian Church and considers the church his second home. “The church has given me a home away from school,” he says. “It’s instilled in me the values and maturity to look on this city with compassion. It was our mission from the beginning with TEDxMemphis to create positive energy within the city.”
Lately, Orr has been readjusting to life after TED. He spends his free time playing golf with friends and thinking about where he’ll attend college. Orr believes it’s important for him to leave Memphis for this next phase of his life. But TEDxMemphis has proven something the teen has suspected all along.
“If you love Memphis, Memphis will love you back. And this city has a lot of love to give back.” As a final question, I ask Orr if he feels proud for having organized such an influential activity.
“I’m just proud of Memphis,” he says simply and grins.