The Ultimate Freedom

Eulogy message to honor the life of Joseph P. Overton

Monday, July 7, 2003

By Joseph G. Lehman, Executive Vice President, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

I love the way God works. Joe Overton was a man who did not seek the admiration of men. But a huge crowd is here today because we admired him. He did not seek tribute. But hundreds of spontaneous tributes to Joe have flooded in from six continents, a dozen countries, and more than half the states. He did not seek to be considered wise in the eyes of the world. But esteemed men and women around the globe turned to him for advice. Because Joe sought higher things than those, God granted him those things, and much, much more, culminating with the crown of eternal life.

I had the inestimable privilege of working alongside Joe for eight of the last nine years at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and walking beside Joe in close friendship these past seventeen years. Joe was the very first person I met after I walked off the plane at the airport in Midland in 1986, and our lives have been melded since that day.

The grief of losing Joe now is indescribable. Many of you have allowed me to share that grief with you in private moments, and I will be forever grateful for that.

A friend of mine, and Joe’s, emailed me from Mexico to help me deal with the transformation caused by Joe’s death. She likened it to a wound that leaves a scar. The wound heals in time, but the scar it leaves behind does not go away. Eventually, we will be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize the scar as a part of us that now belongs.

A journalist asked me on Tuesday how was I able to say so much about Joe when I was so obviously devastated. I simply responded that we all love to talk about the people we love.

Some people are easier to love from afar. Joe was easy to love from up close.

Joe was someone you would want to have with you in time of trial, like this, and in your foxhole in the heat of battle. He was a rock of stability, strength, and fidelity. He had to be, to serve so well in his God-given calling.

Joe’s calling was not the kind of thing the church usually calls a “ministry,” but it’s a ministry nonetheless. Joe was a leader among leaders in the “freedom movement,” a loose but committed confederation of men and women around the world dedicated to individual liberty, limited government, personal responsibility, and voluntary cooperation – the very values the founders of this country sought to build a nation upon.

To Joe, advancing human political liberty was simply the most strategic means of clearing the way for the most people, in the shortest time, to realize ultimate freedom in the Gospel. The enemies of freedom are many, at home and abroad. That must be why God made Joe so strong.

It was just like Joe to take advantage of his reputation as a serious guy to accentuate his sense of humor. Oh, how we will laugh in years to come when we remember the man, the intensely serious revolutionary for freedom, who owned a two-drawer file cabinet. The drawer above is labeled “Top Secret Files.” The drawer below: “Bottom Secret Files.”

Or when we remember Joe, the serious student of human relationships. When Joe was courting Helen across the miles, he bought a hot, little red Miata convertible so he could drive her around in style. When he complained to me about the Miata’s extremely limited trunk space, I razzed him about buying such an impractical car in the first place. Joe said, “I know. But I’m still in the wooing phase with Helen.”

Joe’s serious-guy reputation gave him the perfect cover for being a master practical jokester. Just days ago, Joe faked one of those email financial scam letters. This letter, in all caps and broken English, claimed to be from the family of an African ruler who was being victimized by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a state agency the Mackinac Center frequently differs with. Joe’s intended target was a coworker, and he bought it hook, line, and sinker. I won’t embarrass the target by asking him to raise his hand now, but Mike LaFaive knows who I’m talking about.

Joe controlled his emotions, but he was also compassionate and generous. He was quick to pick up a lunch tab. He would sometimes buy flowers for the ladies in our office when we walked down to the farmer’s market on Wednesdays. He shared his mother’s famous apple squares with us. He used to provide free legal representation to neglected and abused children.

One time, the Mackinac Center budget was under strain and we had to put a hold on bonuses. That did not stop Joe. He paid one coworker a bonus anyway from his personal funds, although our coworker never knew that particular detail.

God gave Joe Overton immense professional talents. I have never met anyone with such an innate understanding of the big picture, as well as a command of intricate details. He saw the forest, and the trees, and the leaves, and how they all fit together. His technical and professional abilities were well recognized by others. I can think of at least one professional award that was conceived with him in mind. It was awarded to him first, and I do not think to anyone else since.

Joe did not speak without first thinking; he did not act without first praying. He elevated the standards of conduct in any group by his mere presence.

Joe worked constantly to improve himself. Joe analyzed all his failures and things that went wrong. Many of us have agonized over Joe’s last moments, when something did go dreadfully wrong. But if I know Joe, I can tell you he was experiencing the sensation of what was happening – of something interesting and unexpected. And he was coolly and deliberately trying to correct the problem.

Joe’s brother-in-law Saunders made an apt comparison to the test pilots Tom Wolfe describes in his book, The Right Stuff. Many of the pilots never ejected from crashing planes because they confidently were trying to figure out what was going wrong, and to correct it, right up to the last second.

Joe was my trusted confidant, faithful friend, and comrade-in-arms. It was through Joe that I heard God’s new calling for my professional life. Joe persuaded me to quit a perfectly good job at Dow Chemical years ago and join him and Larry Reed at something called the Mackinac Center. Working with Joe, I thought of myself as an administrator for the revolution. Joe was a general for the revolution.

Joe was very persuasive. I wonder if anyone would be left seated here this morning if I asked everyone to stand whose opinion had ever been changed by Joe, or whose opinion had at least shifted in Joe’s direction after talking to him.

Joe could have amassed the power of wealth, or political power or some other sort of coercive power, but he believed in peaceful persuasion. Even the public policy issue he cared most passionately about – that parents should be allowed to choose the safest and best schools for their children – rests on simple freedom of choice, not some mandate. How wonderful the world would be if people relied on peaceful persuasion and freedom of choice to change society, like Joe did.

Up to now, I’ve just told you some of the reasons I loved Joe. But what he would really want me to tell you is something more important than that.

If you knew Joe well at all, you know he was fiercely logical, sometimes maddeningly so. So it may seem inconsistent that the most important thing in his life was something that logic alone cannot fully explain. I’m talking about his Christian faith.

Joe believed that he, like all men, was born a sinner and thereby separated from God. He believed what the Bible says a sinner should do about that situation: Sincerely turn from selfish ways, and believe that Jesus died to take the penalty for all those wrong and selfish acts. Only by this turning, and believing, can anyone be reconciled to God, live in Heaven after this life, and avoid Hell.

Joe did not find this faith in conflict with reason. Even the most logical person must admit there are many things that logic alone does not explain. Joe simply yielded to the logical conclusion that faith in the God of the Bible offers the best explanation for those otherwise unexplainable things.

He shared this profound truth with a multitude of men and women over the years, including many here today. I got a call last week from a friend who revealed to me that Joe had been the first one to teach him to read the Bible, pray regularly, and live the Christian life. One time Joe told me the reason he shared his faith like that.

He asked a hypothetical question: If I knew my neighbors were going to die from an awful plague that they didn’t know about, and I knew about the plague AND the cure, wouldn’t I TELL them? Wouldn’t I run down the street naked if that’s what it took to get their attention? Chris Stevens, here today, was with me when Joe explained it that way. Well, today Joe HAS everyone’s attention. And I know he would want me to tell you this, and to plead with you if necessary, to listen well, and decide.

Some of you may have nagging doubts and questions about God and about faith and about whether it could ever make sense to you the way it made sense to Joe. Don’t ascribe those nagging questions to the non-existence of God. Those doubts are God speaking to you! Take heart when you have those doubts! Those whom God gives completely over to their own evil desires do not hear the voice of God at all.

Some of you may have regrets about things you never told Joe. If you have an eternal perspective, founded on believing that Jesus died to pay your penalty for you, those regrets will prove to be temporary. What joy there will be to reunite with Joe in the presence of God!

I used to laugh when people would sometimes say Joe needed more “balance” in his life, because I knew how he would have reacted to that suggestion. For Joe, “balance” consisted of doing one thing right – following God. He did not compartmentalize his life into “church,” “work,” and “relationships.” All his energy was pointed at one thing, not balanced among many things. Like a rocket in which all the force is perfectly balanced through a single point, Joe pressed on toward the goal of eternal life in Christ.

Like he usually did, Joe has now reached that goal too. We would have preferred him to take a little longer to reach this one, but we can be truly happy for him. He is at home, in Heaven, with God.

Matt Brouillette, a former member of this church and coworker of Joe’s, and now president of the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania, sent me a note last week, and I liked the way he put it. He reminded me that Joe is now experiencing immeasurably greater freedom than even Joe could have imagined here on earth. Joe wished for that ultimate freedom for all of you – the freedom of the Gospel of the Bible.