In Celebration of an Angel’s Visit

Remarks at the Funeral Service of Joseph P. Overton

By Lawrence W. Reed
President, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

July 7, 2003

Wife Helen, Mother Kay, Sister Laurie, Brother Scott, members of the extended family of Joe and Helen Overton, colleagues from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and from sister organizations around the nation, and all friends of Joe everywhere.

There is no language on this planet with words that can do justice to what we feel or what we want to say to each other today. There just isn’t. So we must somehow settle for the best that we can do. I feel so inadequate in this attempt to condense the life of a wonderful man and a best friend but when I’m finished in a few minutes, I hope you will understand why I have entitled these remarks, “In Celebration of an Angel’s Visit.”

What sustains us, and enables us to speak at all, given that our beloved Joe left us at the prime of his life, at the top of his game, with so much ahead of him — and under such tragic circumstances? How does one go from a newlywed to a widow in three months and a day and be so strong? How does a mother lose a son and provide inspiration to those around her who need inspired? How do siblings lose a brother and still hold up and bring a smile to your face? How do friends and colleagues who have suffered a loss beyond measure find the strength to fervently rededicate themselves to the causes they shared with the departed? . . . . How does one toast his best friend as Best Man at his wedding in March, deliver a eulogy at his funeral in July, and still remain optimistic for the future?

It’s not as difficult as you might think. Why? Because when the object of our attention is an individual of the caliber of a Joseph Paul Overton, you can accomplish just about anything no matter the circumstances.

If someone had told me just a week ago that I would lose at the same instant my best friend, my closest confidant and a surrogate father and brother, all wrapped up in one person, I would have said that to survive that and grow would be simply impossible. And yet, the grief has already given way to a celebration of a life, as well as a genuine thrill at the thought of how that life is going to open doors, change lives, and promote noble causes with a force and a power we can only imagine at this moment — but which is already unfolding as we speak, according to God’s plan, be assured.

We speak of Joe’s passing as “untimely.” But take comfort that in God’s plan, there’s no such thing. In God’s eyes, and for reasons we can’t yet fully fathom, Joe’s passing was perfect timing.

Ladies and gentlemen, do you know what it’s like to be visited by an angel? If you knew Joe Overton, then the answer to that question is YES!, whether or not you ever realized it while he was alive. His visit with Kay Overton and his older sister Laurie was the longest — 43 years, 187 days. For Helen, it was less than two years, and barely three months of that as a husband. For me it was three months shy of 16 years. But whatever amount of time his visit was with you, the question is, what should you do when an angel bids you goodbye? Grief and a profound sense of loss are certainly appropriate feelings to have. But I think they should be overwhelmed by other sentiments: gratitude and awe come to mind. We should be saying, not, “Oh woe is me!” but, “Wow! What an experience! What a blessing! What a visit! Look how much we learned, how much we were affected, even changed! How lucky we were! How better we are for being among those chosen to be part of this 43 year, 187-day visitation.” We must not only profit as much as possible from the extraordinary opportunity that we had, but we must shout from the rooftops about how the rest of the world can also yet profit though it never met him.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. And I want to tell you why. But first let me tell you what I said to my staff when we first gathered last Tuesday morning, hours after the accident. I said that through the fog and disbelief that were enveloping us in the aftermath of our incalculable loss, there were good things to note and from which to take heart. The first is the absolute certainty that our friend Joe is in Heaven. I just don’t think I ever met anybody better qualified. I can imagine that when he was greeted at the gates last Monday night at 9:32 p.m., the official greeter smiled and said, “We’ve been expecting you. You worked so hard to earn this highest reward. Well done, good and faithful servant.” I can imagine that Joe then received the best Job Performance Review of his 43 years. Now that Joe has been there almost a week, he probably hasn’t made time yet to unpack his bags but — and those of you who knew of his legendary management skills will especially appreciate this — I’m sure that if Heaven didn’t already have an operating practices manual, it’s got one now. Heaven, by definition a perfect place, got even better this past week.

I told my staff that the second good thing comes to mind when you ask the question, “What would Joe want us to do?” The answer is, of course, “Carry on!” The better you knew him, the more self-evident is the answer. He would want us to keep our eyes on the prize, pick up the torch and get busy making the world a better place by first making ourselves better persons. This question, “What would Joe want us to do?” is fast becoming a mantra at the Mackinac Center. I know that personally, there won’t be a day in the rest of my life that I won’t look at every choice or decision through that prism — because Joe was so good at knowing what was the right thing to do. He would want us to remember one of the many verses of the Bible he knew by heart, Romans 8:28: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

The third good thing is that for all believers, this is not a final goodbye. We will see Joe again. And I want to be able to shake his hand and say, “Joe, we didn’t let you down. Look what we did with what you taught us and left for us to build upon.”

Did you ever have a sense when you were with Joe that there was something very special about him, something at least a little more than ordinary? Did you perhaps feel, for even a fleeting moment, that you were in the presence of greatness, that there was something about this guy that raised your standards and made you want to put your best foot forward? Honestly, if you ever experienced any feelings like this while you were with Joe, raise your hand. You know what I mean, don’t you?! How many times in your life have you felt that way about somebody? It really is a rare and extraordinary thing. I sure had those feelings often, and I said so many times — to Joe himself, as well as others. He and I laughed more than once about a comment from someone who didn’t know him well and may not have shared his convictions. She was clearly agitated at the impact he had had on her and complained that there was this inexplicable “aura” around Joe that bothered her.

Now, no mortal is without some flaw, fault or bad habit. But the worst anybody can say about Joe Overton is that he might have seemed a little aloof now and then, a little distracted. Or maybe when we thought we needed stroked, he didn’t stroke us enough. (In hindsight, I realize now that most of the time I thought I needed stroked, I really needed poked and Joe wisely poked me.) He was always friendly, but there could be, at times, a curious distance there. As a friend or family member, you might have thought he should have told you more about himself than he did. And as well as you might have known him, there was still a bit of an invisible barrier. He often appeared very serious, even intense. He seldom let his hair down all the way, so to speak, and maybe that was a little frustrating to others. He would receive an award, thank whoever honored him with it, but then never brag about it or even speak of it again.

I guess I can think of one other flaw I should mention — Joe’s driving. He was careful not to endanger anyone, but he nonetheless drove like he couldn’t wait to get out of the car. And that was true of the passengers who were riding with him too.

But are those little items really flaws? In the last few days I’ve come to understand a side of Joe in a way I didn’t fully grasp before. His was, to borrow from the title of a great and influential book, a purpose-driven life. If he sometimes seemed distracted, it was because he had his mind on bigger things. When he didn’t seem interested enough in himself to tell you what he had just done or who he had just helped, it was because he was not a self-centered guy. Joe believed that life on earth was not about acquiring fame or wealth. He worked for a salary that was half what he could have earned in another profession. He had little interest in accumulating titles and plaudits. Whenever I had doubts about my own ability to do my job, or felt concerned that credit was coming my way for things that he or others should have been recognized for, he shunned the limelight, bucked me up, and spoke of the unique working relationship we had as “magic.” Observing that magic, people outside our organization often said that Joe and I had “complementary skills” but I’ve always known the real truth: He had the skills, and I had the complementary.

You can understand everything about Joe — from the sterling virtues to the seeming flaws or quirks — when you realize that to him, life was an exercise in character-building for eternity. He knew that your character is nothing less than the sum of your thoughts and actions, especially those you think or do when no one is watching. Joe believed that building character means striving to be upright in all things at all times. From memory, he would share Luke 16:10: “Unless you are faithful in small matters, you will not be faithful in large ones.” He pricked a conscience on more than one occasion by asking if you were “cutting corners” on something.

Joe was the straightest straight-shooter I’ve ever known. Not a speck of guile or conceit or hidden agenda in him. He said what he meant and meant what he said, always. You never, ever had to wonder if he was telling you the truth. Like so many others, I came to place total, unqualified trust in him.

Because you knew you could trust him, you sought him out and leaned on him. And he did what he could to help. I knew he was helping a lot of people quietly and privately — because they would tell me, not him. But not even I knew the depth and volume of that assistance until I started reading the cascade of tributes that have been pouring in for him from all around the world. Over and over again, I’ve been hearing and reading such phrases as “He brought me to Christ.” “He fixed this or that problem.” “He advised me how to handle this or that situation.” “He took the time that he probably didn’t have to do something for me, though I had never done a thing for him.” Be sure to visit the Mackinac Center Web site over coming days and weeks as we continue to post many of these remarkable testimonials.

Joe made a lot of people better people. Usually, it was with a soft gentle washcloth and you may have hardly known that he was scrubbing you. But he could be a Brillo pad if that’s what the situation called for. One way or another, if you let him, Joe Overton would clean you up.

An example of how Joe would do that in regard to even the smallest matters is this: You know those buttons you have on your shirtsleeve about a third of the way up from the cuff? Well, I never bothered to mess with them until one day, years ago, when Joe said to me, “Larry, you oughta button those. It’s more professional.” There has not been one day ever since that I haven’t buttoned those buttons and thought of Joe when I did it.”

We get our share of nasty letters at the Mackinac Center, from people who don’t understand our work or have no appreciation of its value or the idealism that animates us. None of them have ever deterred or discouraged us for so much as a millisecond, and we’ve always thought that the very fact those things come our way is a testimony to our impact. But Joe often took a personal interest in the individual who would write such things. If a nasty note was signed, he would often call the person and reason with him, and even thank him for writing. So even a foe, a nasty one at that, could get a visit from this man named Joe Overton.

We could go on for hours about Joe’s personal qualities but as I am the last of several speakers today, you’ve got a pretty complete snapshot by now. But I have to add a little about something he believed in strongly and which brought the two of us together in the first place — a love of liberty. Joe had such a clear conception of what that term means and how it applies to life and public policy. To him, it meant maximum room for each person to employ his God-given abilities so long as he harms no one else. It meant standing on your own two feet, keeping your own house in order and helping others around you rather than expecting Lansing or Washington to do it for you at twice the cost and half the effectiveness. He loved the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence. He believed that a government that’s big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you’ve got. And on the policy issue that meant the most to him — education — he labored tirelessly to expand liberty and opportunity for parents to send their children to the best and safest schools of their choice. Versions of his “Universal Tuition Tax Credit” proposal of six years ago are being proposed or implemented in other states and I believe it will some day come to Michigan as well.

At the Mackinac Center, we are committed to building on every one of Joe’s ideas, publications, and projects — seeing them through to glorious fruition. If you’ve been impressed in the past with the work we’ve done, thanks in huge measure to Joe’s critical role in our organization, just wait. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Would you like a really good example of how Joe Overton’s spirit and good works will continue to shape the future elsewhere? At this time, I am very happy to make an announcement, the very first public one of this development since I received an e-mail Saturday morning from half a world away in Nairobi, Kenya. The writer is James Shikwati, who heads East Africa’s first free market research institute, the Inter-Region Economic Network, and who was deeply affected by Joe’s presentations at one our leadership conferences, in May 2002. James wrote,

“I am pleased to advise you that we are naming our leadership training program that we shall launch next year after Joe. My colleagues and I here are beneficiaries of his wisdom, personal attention, and good work. This program will run once or twice annually on a model similar to that of the Mackinac Center’s, utilizing your organization’s manual and Joe’s lecture material.

The Joseph P. Overton Leadership Center will help introduce African youth and other future leaders to ideas on freedom and how to effectively manage institutions like think tanks that advance liberty. This center will be committed to the excellence that Joe taught us and will draw participants from all over the continent. A more formal announcement of this center shall be made this fall during our inaugural All-Africa Resource Bank meeting to be held in Mombasa, Kenya. Joe Overton has just lit a fire that will, in time, carry a message of liberty and hope to millions who might not otherwise ever hear it.”

If you too would like to honor the life of Joe Overton — if you really mean it when you say you do — then let me offer a list of ways in which you can do that, and in the order that I think Joe himself would rank them:

  1. Get right with God. Renew your faith. That should be your highest priority. For Joe, it certainly was. And if he thought it wasn’t yours, he looked for the earliest opportunity to gently prod you in that direction. If you think life is all about YOU, you’re going to miss the big picture — the biggest and most important picture of all time, in fact.

  2. Renew your vows. Keep your word. Do your duty to spouse and family. Joe often talked about family being the nucleus of a civil society and how, if we don’t do our part in this regard, civil society becomes impossible. The one most responsible for the nurturing and well-being of YOUR family is YOU, not somebody else.

  3. Stick your neck out on behalf of liberty, America’s founding principle. Don’t waste your time and that of others trying to get something from government or make government the answer to your problems. Do all you can in word and deed to leave the next generation freer and more responsible than the last one. And heartily support others who are working to preserve liberty. Joe often lamented how hard it was to get some people as interested in the proper role of government in a free society as they were in yesterday’s football scores.

  4. Mend your relationships with others. If you’ve wronged someone, correct it. And by all means, don’t miss an opportunity to tell people you love that you love them; people you appreciate that you appreciate them.

I’d like to close with a few words from an anonymous author to which I’ve added some verbiage of my own:

The world needs more men who do not have a price at which they can be bought; who do not borrow from integrity to pay for expediency; who have their priorities straight and in proper order; whose handshake is an ironclad contract; who are not afraid of taking risks to advance what is right; and who are honest in small matters as they are in large ones. The world needs more men whose ambitions are big enough to include others; who know how to win with grace and lose with dignity; who do not believe that shrewdness and cunning and ruthlessness are the three keys to success; who still have friends they made twenty years ago; who put principle and consistency above politics or personal advancement; and who are not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion. The world needs more men who do not forsake what is right just to get consensus because it makes them look good; who know how important it is to lead by example, not by barking orders; who would not have you do something they would not do themselves; who work to turn even the most adverse circumstances into opportunities to learn and improve; and who love even those who have done some injustice or unfairness to them. The world, in other words, needs more true leaders. More to the point, the world needs more Joe Overtons.

Let us all see to it that that is precisely what the world gets. Thank you, Joe, for your visit. Give us that winning Overton grin one more time, and be proud of the wondrous fruit in coming months and years that your visit is going to yield.