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Jay Keegan: Upholding the Legacy of Overton Park

Many years ago, committed and strong-willed Memphians abandoned near-term convenience and expedience in favor of the long view to preserve something beautiful, special and publicly accessible that has proved worth saving to generations of us and those yet to come.

Overton Park has hosted some of this city’s defining moments, including Elvis' first public performance at the Overton Park Shell. War veterans from our city are memorialized there. America’s best zoo and a hub for animal education, the renowned Memphis Zoo, is also on the park grounds.

The park’s charm continues to draw together the best of our community, doing what healthy communities do: Savor and save that which brings us together and defines us.

It is laced with important threads of Memphis’ past and holds ample promise for what our citizens are willing to do to extol the virtues of our city, inviting us all to be part of its history.

For many reasons, among the pantheon of Memphians stands Charlie Newman and George Cates, not least of which are their individual contributions toward keeping Overton Park alive and thriving.

Newman deftly turned raw emotion stemming from public outcry over monolithic governmental overreach into such a clear and compelling truth that the United States Supreme Court ultimately ruled to stop what would have been the death knell to Overton Park: allowing the Secretary of Transportation to plow I-40 right through the gut of our 342-acre jewel of a park. 

He won a landmark case on behalf of us all, not for a corporation or for financial gain. 

Cates was a mountain of a Memphian whose beautiful and indelible fingerprints can be found throughout our city. His vision and sheer force of will created Overton Park Conservancy to “polish up our central park, reduce blight, create more affordable housing,” in the words of its pioneering executive director Tina Sullivan.

Someone as intellectually and morally gifted as George Cates was blessed with an uncanny ability to see the truth, speak it and get people to do the right thing, much like Charlie Newman.

The Park, of course, is also deeply indebted to the source of the movement to protect it, a group of determined advocates called Citizens to Preserve Overton Park.

Made up primarily of women, they were painted as “little old ladies in tennis shoes” by the media during the interstate battle.

It was originally their vision that land set aside for the enjoyment of the community should never be seen as the path of least resistance to sacrifice in the pursuit of economic progress.

Wisdom takes the long view, and it is unswerving on its course toward truth. All of us are lucky Overton Park found these two legendary men as champions.

To them, and to the Conservancy that carries forth the spirit of their work, every Memphian who loves and shares in the physical and spiritual spaces of the park owes a debt of gratitude.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Memphian and was written by Jay Keegan, president, CEO and director of the board at Adams Keegan.



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