Friends of Woody:
I’m Lonnie Shalton, also a Friend of Woody. I’m very honored that Jane asked me to speak to you today.
Glen Woodson Overton. Well, that was never gonna stick. He was Woody, and when I think about that, the image that first pops into my head is that hangdog look perfectly coupled with his self-effacing humor. Then I smile thinking about his tendency to repeat his stories over and over. And then I settle in on that true friend who I first met through politics.
Woody got into politics in the early 70’s, but an election a few years earlier would prove to be a big key to his future. In 1968, Tom Eagleton was elected to his first term in the US Senate and Jim Symington was elected to his first term in Congress. I think you have an idea where this is going.
My personal political partnership with Woody began in 1974. He was a committeeman and I was hustling his vote in my race to be Chairman of the Democratic County Committee. After I became chairman, I found that Woody was one of those people who followed through – not always a given in politics. He worked hard. He had good instincts. His personality drew in campaign workers. Coincidentally, the name at the top of the ballot that Woody was working in 1974 was the incumbent Senator Tom Eagleton, running for his second term.
Then came 1976, and the big race was for the open senate seat created by the retirement of Stuart Symington. The politicians started lining up to support one of the three major candidates, Jim Symington, Jerry Litton and Warren Hearnes. I was in the Symington camp and we needed someone to run the Kansas City headquarters. I immediately thought of Woody and somehow convinced him to give up his job and take a flyer. This was a risky thing for a 30-year-old married man getting ready to start a family. Woody assembled a top organization and Symington won Kansas City, but Litton won statewide. So Woody was out of a job, but good work gets noticed. I got a call from Eagleton’s Kansas City office. I had several friends there and Eagleton’s offices were well regarded for their top notch staffs. A whole lot of them are here today. They wanted to know if I thought Woody would be a good addition to their staff. Easiest job recommendation I ever made.
So, Woody joined the Eagleton staff…and it changed his life. Tom Eagleton became his mentor and father figure. Woody learned through Eagleton that politics was necessary, but public service was the goal. Woody played many roles on the staff over his 10 years, but the run ended in 1986 when Eagleton retired. Woody had loved almost everything about the job. There was one notable exception – flying in small planes around the state.
This might be a good time to discuss Woody’s skill at repeating himself. If you had a conversation of some length with Woody at any time over the last 30 years, there is a good chance he would mention that he had worked for Tom Eagleton. Woody was not name dropping. He revered Eagleton and looked at any political situation through the prism of “What would Eagleton do.” The Eagleton connection between politics and public service would always be Woody’s guide.
Skipping ahead to 1992, Woody had a nice office at the courthouse and was helping County Executive Marsha Murphy run Jackson County. But he heard that siren song again and jumped back into the abyss – just like in 1976, he quit his day job to go 24/7 on a campaign. He was co-chair of the coordinated campaign in Missouri that helped elect Bill Clinton, Mel Carnahan, Bob Holden and other Democrats. The campaign was a huge success, and Woody was again noticed – this time by a president, and Woody was appointed to be a Regional Administrator for the Kansas City GSA office that covered a 4-state area. I’m not going to get into the square footages and the billions of dollars of his projects. Woody always kept all of us well informed on this. I do want to mention one specific project – the federal court house in St. Louis. Woody oversaw the construction of what I think is still the largest courthouse in the country – almost a million square feet. But the truly special thing about this building is that it was dedicated in 2000 as the Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse. What a moment that was for Woody.
I have some backup for my bragging about Woody. Jane received this note from Senator Claire McCaskill:
“Woody loved this country and believed deeply in public service and yes, politics. Throughout my 34 years in elective office Woody was my mentor, advisor, and friend. With the wisdom of a political veteran, and the passion and integrity of his mentor and role model Tom Eagleton, Woody would gently but firmly remind me of the importance of staying true to core principles and values as the compass of any political decision. How lucky I was to have him in my life as a guide through the rocky reality of Missouri politics. But I was even luckier to have him aa a true friend who often reminded me that there is no reason to fight for these jobs if you are not going to fight for what you believe in when you’re fortunate enough to win. He once said to me “Claire you can stay married to poll numbers or you can fight like hell for what you believe in.” I loved him like a brother. And I will miss him terribly.”
Now to a couple of more personal matters. For years, Rita and I badgered Woody and Jane to take a trip to Europe with us. But Woody’s fear of flying was a huge obstacle. Besides, he said, he was already an experienced international traveler – he had been to Windsor across the Canadian border from Detroit and Tijuana on the border with Mexico. He was over 60 and had never had a passport. Jane wanted to go and three of us kept at him until he finally caved in 2010. It helped that our first stop would be London, one of Tom Eagleton’s favorite cities.
London did not start out so well. Woody’s pocket was picked at the British Museum. So he finally gets on a plane and flies over an ocean – to get robbed! In the retelling, Woody developed this long monologue of every minute detail from getting his British pounds at the ATM, the likely suspect in the crime, and spending hours cancelling credit cards. We of course heard the story several times, but he branched out to share it with the hotel desk, guests in the lobby, our taxi driver, the waitress at dinner and two complete strangers in the theater line. The three of us gave him an ultimatum – you can tell your story to anyone until midnight, and then forget it. He did exactly that and was like a kid in Disneyland for the rest of the trip.
Well, one exception. He was not a fan of the Chunnel train ride from London to Paris – all he could think of was being in a claustrophobic tube below the English Channel and water pouring in. The most laughs that we had in Paris came from watching Woody butcher the French language. He had this chart of common phrases to use for the hotel, meals and taxis. It did not go well. Our biggest laugh was when a frustrated cab driver insisted he speak English.
You can’t really put an objective number on the value of a friendship, but Rita and I do have a number we have been tracking with Woody and Jane. For the last 39 years, the four of us have been together on New Year’s Eve. The first time was at the Brewery in Brookside in 1978 during a big ice storm. The story within that story is that Jane was pregnant at the time and so it is easy to keep track of the number of years.
We continued the New Year’s Eve tradition at restaurants for a while, but then switched to taking turns hosting at our homes. Several years ago, Richard and Alison Martin came into the rotation. Whoever acts as host sometimes invites a few others to fill out the dinner table. I don’t have time to share stories for all 39, so I’ll use the millennium year to give you an idea.
Rita and I were the hosts for the transition from 1999 to 2000. The Martins and the Overtons were there plus two other couples. And one penguin. You don’t want to hear the long story, but Rita and I owned a life-size inflatable Emperor penguin that had been kidnapped and mysteriously reappeared that evening. In the photos taken at midnight that night, Jane’s date appears to be our penguin. Where was Woody? Well, after dinner he had to go to his GSA office to see what might happen if the computers went bonkers because of Y2K issues. I wish that we had been at GSA with Woody at midnight to see what happened. Woody’s staff pranked him by flipping the master light switch. The building went dark and Woody’s worst fears about Y2K were realized. Then the lights came back on.
I’m going to close by bragging about Woody’s family. Two wonderful daughters, Beth and Kathleen, who had this great relationship with their dad. It was so much fun to watch them interact. Beth, you brought down the church last night with your remarks. And Thomas and Olivia, your grandfather could not have been more proud of you.
Everything Woody accomplished would not have been possible without the support, loyalty and encouragement of his best friend. That would of course be Jane. She was the anchor so Woody could take his flyers. They made a great team. Jane, thank you for sharing Woody with us.
It’s now time to announce Woody’s final election returns. As a family man, as a friend, as a human being, Woody Overton won in a landslide.
Eulogy delivered by Lonnie Shalton at Woody Overton services at St. Peter’s Church on February, 15, 2017.
Below, on the Chunnel train in 2010. See “Woody and Jane’s Excellent Adventure to London and Paris” at this link.
New Year’s Eve of 2012, ringing in 2013. Richard and Alison Martin, Lonnie, Rita, Woody and Jane.