The following remarks were offered in the wake of the tragic death June 30 of Mackinac Center Senior Vice President Joseph Overton. The remarks are those of Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Joseph Lehman, a close personal friend and colleague of Overton’s. While the Mackinac Center for Public Policy does not espouse any particular religious beliefs, neither does it prevent its staff from expressing personal views when appropriate.
Lehman’s remarks were delivered to honor not only Overton, for whom a new award has been named, but also in honor of the first recipient of the Overton Award, Lynn Harsh, executive director of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, based in Olympia, Washington. The presentation was made before 250 research institute personnel at the 11th Annual Meeting of the State Policy Network on September 13, 2003 in Seattle.
I believe one of the evidences that we are made in God’s image is that we have a built-in need to honor the honorable, to admire the beautiful, and to grieve deeply the loss of someone so honorable and beautiful as Joe Overton.
For those who knew him well personally as well as professionally, our loss is doubly profound. We all love to talk about the people we love, so it is a joy to tell you why I loved Joe, and also to announce for the first time tonight one way the freedom movement will keep his memory alive.
It was my inestimable privilege to work alongside Joe for eight of the last nine years at the Mackinac Center. But even before there was a Mackinac Center, Joe and I began a deep friendship 17 years ago when he was the very first person I met when I got off the plane in Midland, Mich. for a job interview.
Now you might wonder what that meeting was like, if you can force yourself to imagine how Joe Overton and I acted 17 years ago. Joe was to pick me up at the airport and recruit me for an engineering job at the Dow Chemical Company. But we spent most of the evening talking about the morality of seat belt laws.
We both opposed seat belt laws, by the way.
So he asked me why I was wearing one as he drove me around. It was not the last time I felt the need to comment on Joe’s driving skills. Our lives were melded together from that moment.
Joe was a very serious person. This is a very serious business, human freedom. And he cultivated a serious image. But his serious-guy image gave him the perfect cover for some seriously funny jokes and pranks.
Take for example his two-drawer file cabinet. The upper drawer had a very serious label: "top secret files." The lower drawer: "bottom secret files."
And you’ve seen those email scams, messages supposedly from the family of some African ruler seeking a safe haven for millions of dollars. Well, Joe selectively altered one of those to say that this particular African ruler had been victimized by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, an agency the Mackinac Center has differed with. For a good hour, our director of fiscal policy thought he had a great angle for a news release.
Mackinac Center President Lawrence Reed has spoken of Joe’s rock-solid character tonight. If you knew Joe, you were nodding along with Larry. Joe’s character was the foundation for his vast accomplishment in the movement. He originated the universal tuition tax credit concept. MichiganVotes.org, and other services like it, were his brainchildren. He was the architect of the Mackinac Center’s strategic plan. He taught us that for every thousand men who thrash at the branches of evil, there is one who strikes at the root. He was one of those men.
There’s a magic in our leadership team. Larry’s the guy who sees a million great opportunities, but Larry’s ideas need to be done this week. Joe’s the guy with a million ideas, but none of Joe’s ideas can be done this week — they need at least a year. And I’m the one who helpfully articulates all the worst-case scenarios and asks how are we going to pay for all these bright ideas. I would not be honest if I said I knew how we are going to keep doing what Joe did for us, and for the movement.
Working with Joe, I felt like an administrator for the revolution. Joe was one of the generals. But Joe made me a better man, and he made the movement a stronger force. And Joe helped us put together an outstanding team of policy professionals with whom to carry on. And even though it’s hard to accept, I believe that God took Joe at precisely the perfect time, and I don’t believe that our future is now somehow outside of God’s care.
This was Joe’s reason for hope, too. If you knew Joe, you knew he was fiercely logical. But he had a deep and abiding faith that does not conflict with reason, or logic.
Joe knew that logic alone does not explain everything in life. And he believed that the God of the Bible was the most reasonable explanation for those things logic alone does not explain.
That is why he took time to share his deepest beliefs with others. I know he shared with many of you in this room the reason for his hope. He saw political freedom as the best means to pave the way for the most people, in the shortest time, to realize the ultimate freedom.
And he believed the ultimate freedom was simply this: Freedom from the consequences of man’s natural-born condition. He believed what the Bible says, that every person is born a sinner, and thereby separated from God. And that the only way to be reconciled to God – to attain Heaven and avoid Hell – is to sincerely turn away from selfish acts, and to believe that Jesus died to take our penalty for those selfish acts.
I know Joe would want me to share that with you, even though he knew many of us hold different faiths. And I know that he would urge all of us to listen well, and to choose where we will stand. And not to let nagging doubts about God dissuade us. Those very doubts may be the voice of God calling you.
One cannot capture a lifetime in a speech. But we can establish a way to remember that life and honor others whose lives bear testimony to the values, and accomplishments, that Joe Overton is known for.
Tonight we make the inaugural presentation of the Overton Award. The Overton Award will be given from time to time by the State Policy Network to a comrade in the freedom movement who exhibits qualities of leadership, loyalty, management innovation, support for the cause of liberty, and who is also an indispensable right-hand man or woman who may not be in the limelight but whose contribution to his or her organization is nonetheless vital.
The boss of the first Overton Award honoree describes the recipient as "the glue that holds this place together."
Of course, he is describing Lynn Harsh, executive director of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.
Lynn has worked with Evergreen President Bob Williams since he hired her for his gubernatorial campaign in 1987. He knew a great leader when he saw one; that’s why he asked her five times to join him. Together, they founded Evergreen in 1991 and agreed to give it everything they had, including Lynn’s basement, for at least two years, and the rest is history. And if anyone doubts that history has been made, just ask the Washington Education Association.
Lynn’s resume alone shows that she is worthy of an award. But Lynn’s essence doesn’t show up on her resume. The real Lynn comes through when you ask her staff why she is being honored here tonight. Here are some of the things they told me about her:
"Lynn has worked so hard for so long; she’s given her life for the movement." "Lynn’s a great boss; she’s very perceptive; she wants what’s best for her people – they’re not just employees to Lynn." "Lynn is visionary; she knows the movement is important for the future." "Lynn sees her work as making the world better for her sons, Jason and John." "Lynn is humble." "Lynn reminds us that it’s all about people." "I admire Lynn’s work ethic, her intelligence, and her drive."
Someone said that last night while we were wining and dining at the Chateau, Lynn was here at the hotel, finishing a project for Evergreen. "Lynn is a great writer." "She has the courage to talk to me when my work has not gone well." "Sometimes Lynn’s encouragement is the only reason we keep working when a project gets tough."
Bob Williams really summed it up when he said Lynn Harsh is the glue that holds Evergreen together. In a Cathedral, some stones have high and grand placement atop lofty arches and peaks. Some stones are invisible and in the foundation. Some are for walking on, some are for holding up roofs, some are for admiring. But the mortar runs in all the joints, from the lowest to the highest stone. And if you could get the measure of all that mortar, and see it as a single mass, you just might find that the measure of the mortar is more than the measure of any one of the single stones.
Tonight we give our flowers to the living. And although not all of us may have told Joe Overton how much we admired him, we are telling Lynn how much we admire her. Congratulations, Lynn Harsh, the inaugural recipient of the Overton Award.