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A Tribute to Joseph P. Overton

Published on Tuesday, July 01, 2003
ARTICLES

By Byron S. Lamm

Joe Overton was the first person I met at the first think tank function I attended. I was skeptical about the whole notion of creating think tanks at the state level and wasn't much impressed with those I'd spoken to by telephone.I was prepared for the worst as I'd encountered many of our more suspect legislators from Indiana at the ALEC meetings.

I walked into a meeting room where a session had ended and the next one had yet to start. There was Joe, organizing the presentation that he was about to make. He was the opposite of what I'd expected. He was not a political hack eager to spew opinion. His smile, always slow to appear, but always worth the wait, put me at ease. His patient and thorough way of answering questions provided as much useful information in ten minutes as what I'd learn during the entire event.

Several years later I was traveling through Detroit on the way to Washington, DC. I’d passed Larry Reed in the terminal as he was returning from speaking at a conference in Florida. He said he’d just seen Joe who was also on his way to Washington. When I boarded my flight, there was Joe. We traded seats to sit next to each other and after noting Larry’s thoughtlessness returning to the Midwest in February with a tan, began to realize that our departure time had passed.

The pilot soon announced a lengthy delay and we disembarked to get something to eat. In the airport restaurant I noticed Joe was looking over my shoulder and smiling at something. What he was smiling at was CNN’s coverage of a jet that had slid off the runway at National Airport, our destination. After listening to me complain for several minutes, Joe jumped up and headed toward the nearest service counter. The next flight to National was also being delayed, but Joe quickly had seats for us on the next flight to Washington Dulles.

After a few calls we learned that our hotel rooms had been taken and ended up at a place in a neighborhood that Joe described as “transitional.” The transition appeared to be going from bad to worse, but it was late and it was available. Joe was in law school at the time and noted with a smile that the absence of deadbolt locks was probably a violation of several inn-keeping ordinances. That didn’t make me sleep any better even after Joe mentioned that as it was so late, much of the evening’s criminal activity had already taken place.

The first time I saw Joe make what soon became known as, "Joe's presentation," about the basics of state-based think tanks was at a workshop in Wichita that Carl Helstrom organized with SPN while he was at the Atlas Foundation. It was overwhelming. All of the questions and challenges that donors, politicians and media adversaries had hurled were answered in Joe's witty and informative delivery. After working at the Indiana Policy Review and State Policy Network for several years, I thought I'd heard it all before. Joe managed to address and invigorate those things that had seemed so obvious, but were in fact most important because we'd assumed they were obvious. He did it with wit and grace, completely oblivious to the people inching forward in their seats so that they might not miss a syllable of what he was sharing.

Many years ago Larry Reed and Joe Lehman rode with me from a Reason event in Chicago back to Midland. We stopped along the way for Larry to speak to a Rotary meeting in Ann Arbor. When we got back to Midland, Joe mentioned that he had taken up tennis. I mentioned that I'd been a tennis pro for several years. We went to the racquet club in Midland and hit balls for an hour or so. I offered some instruction to Joe regarding his forehand. As you might expect, Joe was a great student, asking good questions, willing to try something new even though it felt odd and didn't yield immediate benefits. He kept trying and eventually what I'd promised him would happen did. Joe was pretty serious as he hit the balls, but I noticed his smile as he began to smack the balls past me.

I know that I never thanked Joe for all he did or the way that he did it. Many are intelligent and perhaps too willing to pontificate and maneuver for attribution and adulation. Joe was kind, courageous, unassuming and effective in a way we can only hope to emulate. His knowledge and organizational skills were shared in ways that were useful and inspiring.

Joe’s thoughtful generosity was recognized with the State Policy Network’s Roe Award. The award was presented to Joe at a special event in Midland, it might have been a birthday or service anniversary with Mackinac.

I remember that as he made his acceptance remarks thinking that he truly embodied the many things I admired about Tom Roe. Gifted and generous. Modest to a fault. Eager to acknowledge and thank the people he worked with. Energetic and enthusiastic about everything he did, leaving those who were fortunate enough to be around him, much the better.

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Byron Lamm was Founding Executive Director and current Board Member of State Policy Network

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