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Overton’s advice: ‘Never let fear stand in your way’

Jackie Overton at the Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Jackie Overton at the Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Jackie Overton is a true jack-of-all-trades. She is willing to try her hand at almost anything – once.

She learned to play golf – and more recently chess. . . . She taught herself to play the piano and has played the bass guitar for the United Christian Fellowship. . . . She started a choir at UNC Hospitals. . . . She has written poetry and had some of it published. . . . She was so shaken by the events of 9/11 that she wrote a psalm to capture how she felt.

She learned to refinish old furniture and learned mechanics so she could work on her car, but gave it up because “I don’t like to get my hands dirty.”

Though never married, she has served as a wedding coordinator and a wedding photographer – “usually for broke family members.”

When she was first elected Employee Forum chair two summers ago, Overton planned to hold the post for a year, then bow out. Her mistake was doing the job so well that no one wanted her to stop.

She became the yeomen bridge builder between the forum and administrators, restoring mutual trust and respect.

Former Chancellor Paul Hardin, who created the forum in 1992, described it as a place where delegates could openly criticize the policies of the University without fear of reprisal.

In 2006, when Overton became active in the forum, she realized the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction, and the “open season” on verbally attacking administrators had to end.

From the day she took the gavel, Overton insisted that no subject was off limits for discussion, and no personal attacks would be tolerated. Since then, the forum has approved new guidelines for civility during meetings and in communications.

She now counts serving as forum chair as an unexpected source of joy and pride.

In her capacity as chair, she was treated to a behind-the-scenes meeting with President Barack Obama when he spoke on campus this spring. It didn’t happen exactly as she expected.

“When he came into the building he high-fived the chancellor and said, ‘Hey, buddy!’ He was so real, so down-to-earth that I realized I could be myself, too,” Overton said. So naturally, when the president bent down to give her a hug, Overton did not hesitate: She hugged him right back.

Keeping fear at bay

Last month, after forum members elected Overton without opposition to a third term as chair, she talked about the little-known, seemingly inconsequential things about herself to make a bigger point: Don’t be afraid to do something you have never done before and find out where it might take you.

By trying so many things and being willing to find out what she was good at and what she liked doing, Overton learned she could do more than she ever imagined.

“Everything I have done in my life has led me to this place,” she said. “There is no other way I can explain it. I am not that naturally gifted. I am not. I have done a little bit of everything to find myself. I like me, and I am going to be me.”

This past May, a few weeks after she learned she had won a 2012 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, Overton was the featured speaker at a meeting of the University’s Association for Women Faculty and Professionals.

Her message was simple and direct: Know who you are, but don’t stop imagining what you might become. Never let fear stand in your way. Don’t be afraid to step up to the plate – and when you do – swing for the fences.

Small-town roots

Overton grew up one of six children in Hertford, a small, sleepy coastal town along the Perquimans River.

She came to Carolina in 1975 as a scared first-year student and dropped out after that year, unable yet to understand why she was here. She found a job as a teacher’s aide, but the reality of needing a college education dawned on her when she received her first paycheck – $400 after a full month’s work.

Overton returned to Chapel Hill, working full-time at a series of jobs and squeezing in the classes she had time or money for. It took eight painstaking years, but in 1985 she completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in African-American studies.

She thought she wanted to become a guidance counselor, but a job with the Department of Public Safety writing tickets for illegally parked cars helped her see another path in her future, one that led ultimately to her niche as a training officer.

Because of her job training others, she said, she has grown comfortable talking before a group of people.

But when Chancellor Holden Thorp invited her to speak during University Day last year, her first impulse was to run and hide. After learning that the invitation really was not optional, she stepped up to the plate.

“There were some fears in giving the forum such status because it was felt that the staff would then want to run things,” Overton told the crowd that morning.

“To be sure, we wanted to run things: typewriters, errands, vacuums, bobcats, cash registers, parking booths, coffee pots and the like. We wanted to run offices, and labs; and direct clinics, projects, and programs – with a goal toward doing our part to making Carolina the best public university in the country.”

As she left the hall to return to work, Overton said, Kevin Guskiewicz, a leading sports concussion expert at Carolina and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (known colloquially as a genius award), “ran me down to shake my hand and tell me how much he enjoyed what I had to say.” The campus’s response to the speech overwhelmed her.

Overton has now been a part of Carolina for 36 years – 28 as an employee. As much as she loves her work and the people here, she is already looking forward to what life might hold after she leaves.

One of the most rewarding things she tried is motherhood. She is and will forever be a “proud mama.”

Her adopted daughter, Chandra Alston, earned her Ph.D. in English in June 2010, the same month Overton began her stint as leader of the forum. That fall, Alston began her faculty appointment at the University of Michigan.

And this spring, when Alston adopted a baby boy, Overton happily accepted a new lifetime job as grandmother. His name is Eli, and Overton hopes that one day he will call her “J-Ma.”

Her camera trigger finger is already itching.

By Gary Moss, University Gazette
Originally published by University Gazette: July 10, 2012 – 10:20 am
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