Overton Park Conservancy’s Executive Director, Tina Sullivan, gave a toast to Charlie Newman at our April 2 Center of a Century celebration. Charlie was the attorney who brought Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe to the Supreme Court in 1971 and won an improbable victory that saved the park from being bulldozed by Interstate 40. If you missed the event, or you were unable to hear Tina’s remarks on Saturday, we’re sharing them in full below.
If you’ve had any involvement with Overton Park in your life, or if you’ve lived in Memphis for more than a minute, you’re probably familiar with the story of how a group of Memphians banded together, fought the federal government and protected Overton Park from the expanding interstate system. A little more than 50 years ago, after years of work, they received a favorable Supreme Court decision. Their attorney at the time was Charlie Newman, who is still supporting Overton Park even now, and who frequently reminds me either directly or indirectly of several things: first, that there were many people working in different ways to support the park; second, that the Supreme Court victory was just one moment in a series of events that all needed to converge for the park to be saved; and third, that the park will only remain intact into the future if we continue working on its behalf.
In other words: the Supreme Court did not save Overton Park. Memphians did. And those Memphians were intrepid and unlikely heroes. Anona Stoner, the board secretary of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, or CPOP, was described by the press in the most demeaning way. CPOP itself, whose membership included more women than men, was described as being motived by emotion rather than by good sense. They were maligned and ridiculed by the press, business leaders, and all levels of government. But they did not give up. Nobody believed they could do it! They knew themselves that their victory was not assured. But they kept at it, and they got it done. And that is such a Memphis story. It’s an epic story. It has become our history, and on Saturday we celebrated that part of our history.
We also celebrated our own place in that history, your own place in that history. So many of you have been motivated to help protect and improve this park. You’ve donated, volunteered, counted people, counted cars, served on boards, invited others to join in the work, introduced us to collaborators, convened us to facilitate solving what seemed like unsolvable problems (hat tip to you, Mayor Strickland). I could’ve spent a full hour thanking people for the many different ways that Memphians, past and present, have contributed to the park’s success, but we would’ve run out of champagne and that would’ve been tragic, and you wouldn’t have been able to hear us anyway. Instead, I urge you to please share with us, so we can share with the world, the story of your connection to Overton Park by going to overtonpark.org/stories.
This park represents so much of what we love about Memphis and what we need for and from our city. I have had a post-it note on my computer for several years now as we’ve been planning for the future of Overton Park. It says, “How might we comfort people through design?” I’m going to add to that, “How might we use our work to inspire people?” What if the enduring legacy of Overton Park is that it truly is a place that brings people together as a community, as a place of refuge and healing and inspiration? How can we use this work to inspire future generations, which is exactly what Anona Stoner said her motivation was when joining CPOP. It’s exactly what CPOP member Mary Evelyn Deupree did – inspired her family to continue helping Overton Park through the generations. It’s what CPOP member Sunshine Snyder did for me, when she and I became pen pals, and she told me, “Never give up.”
After I took this job almost ten years ago, I began receiving almost daily email exchanges between Gary Shorb, Charlie Newman, and George Cates. They were usually initiated by George, usually around 4am, proposing some course of action with equal parts impatience and good humor. I was inspired to see these three guys spending so much of their personal time helping to get the Conservancy off the ground, and getting so much joy out of the work.
Charlie was instrumental in founding Overton Park Conservancy, and continues to give me his wise counsel, wry humor, and unconditional friendship. If you know Charlie, you know he’s not clamoring for recognition. You also know that his work in Memphis is broad and deep and unselfish. Charlie’s service to Overton Park didn’t end with that Supreme Court victory, and his service to Memphis didn’t stop at Overton Park. It has been a lifelong pursuit. It is in that truly generous spirit of service to others that makes Charlie such an inspiration, and a worthy recipient of a celebratory toast.