A workhorse remembered: A celebration of former Congressman John Olver’s life


For the Recorder

Published: 04-17-2023 5:59 PM

AMHERST — It’s fitting that those who knew John Olver and worked with him during his 40 years of public service would gather to honor the late congressman’s memory at a place named for him — the John W. Olver Design Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Former Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said he was blown away by the number of Olver’s former staffers who came to honor Olver — who died in February at age 86 — at the same campus where he first taught chemistry decades ago.

“This fraternity that worked for him — he made such an impact on us. So many of us went on to higher positions,” Narkewicz said. “He was incredibly loyal, a big supporter of all the people in western Mass.”

Narkewicz said he kept in touch with Olver right to the end and he cherishes the many breakfasts the two shared at Stables in Hadley.

“He was a legend,” retired pastor Peter Ives said. “We have such great appreciation for his enormous contributions. Our hearts are open to this great building.”

The building’s exterior, a monument to innovation and sustainability, features “Working Fields,” an important teaching landscape near a grove of shagbark hickory, where students and faculty can demonstrate their design processes.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, another former Olver staffer, was “struck by how many incredible people John brought together.”

“When he hired you, it was never about your last name or your connections; it was what you could do,” Blais said. “He believed in you.”

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Blais recalls bringing Olver a “multi-column, multi-row spreadsheet” she’d spent countless days and hours working on.

“He quickly looked it over and said, ‘This isn’t right,’” she said. “I took it back, worked and worked on it and finally realized that the formula I used was all wrong. But he could tell that at a glance — a mathematical genius.”

A video of John Olver’s life that ran before the memorial showed a newspaper headline for one of his earliest triumphs: “Workhorse not a show pony,” a phrase that became symbolic of his career in politics. The film featured plenty of shots of his rock-climbing and hiking adventures, but the part that elicited a roar from the large crowd was his parody of Bob Dylan’s famous video spelling out the lyrics with cue cards to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” except that Olver’s cue cards had the names of all the towns in his 1st Congressional District — Northfield, Middlefield, etc., along with shots of him with hammer, nail and shovel.

As the Journey Home Singers from Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Hospice finished “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” emcee and former state Senate President Stan Rosenberg remarked that the selection was “no accident. That was John’s favorite song, one that he would bring out in the middle of cooking dinner.”

“He was passionate, particularly about transportation and infrastructure,” said UMass Vice Chancellor Michael Malone. “But innovation was what he encouraged — sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always striving to meet the biggest challenges facing our country. This building, dedicated in 2017, is the most ecologically advanced wood structure in the country.”

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey sent videos.

“He combined the curiosity of a teacher with the precision of a scientist,” said Warren. “His spirit lives on, to fight for what is right.”

Markey, in Ireland with President Joe Biden, called Olver “a wise man, a gentle soul and a pioneering figure.”

“His eyes would light up at the mention of CO2, as he took the opportunity to list the 10 other greenhouse gases,” Markey said. “His focus was on this wonderful region, with Soldier On, the system of bike paths and, of course, the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield. There’s not a corner of this region that doesn’t have his fingerprints on it.”

Fraternity of staff on hand

“His staff was like family,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, who was in Italy Saturday night and flew a red-eye home to be at the event. He said Olver’s attention to exhaustive detail was never more apparent than during the pair’s arrest for protesting the genocide in Darfur.

“We were handcuffed, fingerprinted and put in the same cell. John read all the graffiti on the walls, aloud, top to bottom,” said McGovern, “only stopping when he needed an explanation as to what a particular phrase meant. When we were let out I said, ‘Thanks, officer, for taking our belts and shoelaces. If I had to hear any more of this I would have killed myself.’”

McGovern inherited many of Olver’s communities when Olver retired in 2013. He began picking Olver’s brain.

“‘We should go for a hike,’ he said, and took me to Mount Holyoke,” McGovern recounted. “He arrives with a walking stick and a flashlight and gives this running commentary about moss, trees and rock formations. Then I hear this groan — I thought he was having a heart attack. ‘Look!’ he shrieks. ‘What?’ I cried. ‘There! Where? THERE!’ Can that be sassafras at this height?!’ He knew everything — in excruciating detail.”

As Rosenberg introduced state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, to read a joint resolution honoring Olver’s decades of dedicated service, he reminded the crowd that both women “occupy seats that John once held,” wryly intoning, “seats that I, too, once held. We’re just one big happy family.”

When McGovern was asked why he didn’t record a video like Markey and Warren instead of flying all night, he said, “John would have haunted me.”

Maps to success

Rosenberg illustrated Olver’s longtime practice of preparing colored maps and charts to prove points.

“He decided that state rep was not a good fit for him, and he could have happily gone back to teach chemistry, but he said, ‘I’m going to run for the [state] Senate,’” Rosenberg recounted. “He was told repeatedly, ‘You can’t win.’ ‘Not only am I going to win,’ he said, ‘I’m going to win by 3,000 votes!’ and proceeded to bring out the maps.

“‘The path to success,’ he told me, ‘is to organize at the grassroots level, to be involved with local democratic committees,’ something he continued for decades,” he added.

When Rosenberg called for people who were part of those committees to stand up, 30 attendees got to their feet. When he asked the same of Olver’s staff members, more than 40 people stood up.

Niece Kim Olver spoke about her husband desperately needing a bone marrow transplant.

“Out of 350 donors, we couldn’t find a match,” she said. “In January of 1999, John left Washington and flew to Wisconsin and donated bone marrow. I don’t know how much you know about the process, but it’s very painful and he had to shovel snow when he came back. When my husband eventually passed, John took our boys rock-climbing. So very generous.”

At the reception that followed, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll said she and Olver crossed paths many times when she was mayor of Salem.

“I thought of him as the Abraham Lincoln of our delegation,” she said, “and not just because of his size. He worked so hard behind the scenes on projects that we were not going to cut the ribbon on. Just selfless dedication.”