Last night, more than 400 people gathered at the National Geographic Society in the heart of Washington, D.C., to celebrate Executive Director Barry W. Lynn on the occasion of his retirement and mark the 70th anniversary of Americans United.

I’m a little biased, of course, but this was an awesome event. Barry was surrounded by friends, colleagues, AU members and well-wishers who saluted him for his remarkable 25 years at the helm of Americans United.

This gala was at times touching, amusing and sobering; there were many highlights. Comedian and social critic Lewis Black, who served as master of ceremonies, was definitely one of them. Employing language that was a little bit colorful at times, Black blasted the Donald Trump administration, calling Kellyanne Conway “the person you hire when you want to get rid of your daughter’s cheerleading rival” and saying of Steve Bannon: “Why would you listen to anyone who looks like I feel when I have a hangover?”

Barry Lynn and Lewis Black shared some private time backstage before the gala started. (Photo by Pam Risdon)

Rabbi David Saperstein, a longtime friend to Barry and Americans United, offered a just-right reception toast, and special tributes were delivered by Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood (who spoke by video); Wade Henderson, past president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.); and Terry O’Neill, past president of the National Organization for Women.

I was especially struck by Henderson’s recollections of working with Barry more than 30 years ago at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Whether testifying before Congress or in debate in hostile territory, Barry often played the role of a butt-kicking paladin, walking into difficult circumstances with ease – a Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, a G-rated version of Elmer Gantry,” Henderson said. “Barry was great at poking holes in hypocrisy. He’d often leave his opposition all but decimated. His knowledge was broad, so whether the topic was the federal marriage amendment, opposition to school vouchers or federally funded employment discrimination, Barry used an artful blend of substance, humor and incisive wit that made him a regular on TV cable news and in the nation’s top publications. ”

Some things never change because that’s definitely the Barry I know!

Barry loves folk music, so the event wouldn’t have been complete without some tunes. Mary Gauthier and Catie Curtis were on hand for that. It was hard not to choke up during Gauthier’s touching performance of “Mercy Now,” and Curtis sang a witty ditty she penned just for Americans United – and even led us in a sing-along. The two joined forces to close the event with a powerful rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

The gala also featured the debut of two videos – one celebrating Barry and the other focusing on the history of Americans United.

One of the best things about the evening, though, was having an opportunity to see how many lives Barry has touched. The room was filled with AU members, coalition allies, friends, activists, former and current staff members and others. Members of the AU Board of Trustees, National Leadership Council and Youth Advisory Council were also on hand. In conversations, I heard people sharing their warm memories of Barry and how he changed their lives.

We all know that Barry’s retirement marks the end of an era, but we also know that Americans United, now in its 70th year, will continue to push forward. Be assured that AU’s Board of Trustees is hard at work finding the right leader to guide the important work of Americans United. (Barry plans to officially depart the week of Thanksgiving, so he’ll be with us for a few more weeks.)

Several speakers last night noted that these are indeed challenging times. But they also pointed out that we’ve been through tough periods before and came through them. That happened in no small measure thanks to AU’s long history, Barry’s leadership, our strong staff and the dedication of our members.

With your support and activism, we’ll do it again.

P.S. If you want to check out the gala, video of it will be available here for a limited time.