In September of 1992, a man named Barry W. Lynn was named executive director of Americans United.
At the time, I’d been working at AU for five years, and I knew Barry by name and reputation. If you worked in the fields of civil liberties or social justice, you’d know Barry; that’s just the way it was. He was an important player in those areas.
I had interviewed Barry for Church & State in 1991 when he was with the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union. During that interview, I could sense his passion for, and commitment to, church-state separation.
In March of 2016, Barry spoke at a rally at the Supreme Court supporting access to birth control.
As Barry settled in at Americans United, I quickly began to learn other things about him: that he could bring a house down with his spellbinding speaking style. That he could go on CNN, MSNBC or even Fox News, with the odds stacked against him, and eviscerate his opponents. That he had the stamina of someone half his age and that he was willing to do speaking tours that lasted days, hopping on airplanes at a moment’s notice. (Barry is infamous for his bad “travel karma” and has endured a lot of delayed flights and turbulence over the years.) That he could live out of a suitcase and eat on the run while dashing all over the country in rental cars speaking to AU chapters and allied groups.
I also learned that he has a great sense of humor. This can be a stressful job. When the pressure’s on and everyone’s feeling overwhelmed, you can count on Barry to say just the right thing to open a release valve.
One of the best things I learned about Barry is how much the leaders of the Religious Right got wrong about him. Some of them called Barry a fake minister, which made me laugh: He graduated from Boston University School of Theology, an institution many of Barry’s critics could never get into. (His law degree is also not shabby – it’s from Georgetown University Law Center.)
I learned that Barry respects the right of people to believe, or not, as guided by conscience – which is kind of the whole point of Americans United – but that his own faith is deep. I learned about his strong commitment to his family.
It has been exciting to work alongside Barry as he spearheaded Americans United’s growth. He believed AU should have an in-house legal team, so he built one. He expanded our legislative team from one staff person to four and got AU more active in state legislatures. He understood the value of strong AU chapters, so he grew that department as well – and when new chapters formed, Barry was always ready to go speak to them. He sought a sound financial basis for AU, so he personally helped raise funds and kept a steady hand even during financial downturns. He boosted AU’s profile by doing media appearances whenever the cable news shows called. If he had a 6 a.m. appearance, Barry was in the green room at 5:30. (OK, maybe 5:45.) As the internet and social media took hold, Barry made sure AU was an early adopter.
Barry announced his retirement today, and I’m feeling sad and happy at the same time. Sad because I’ll miss working with Barry. Happy because I know how hard he’s worked, and I want him to enjoy some leisure time.
Americans United was founded in 1947, and we’re celebrating our 70th anniversary this year. (We’re sponsoring a gala event in Washington, D.C., Nov. 2 to celebrate AU and Barry, so save the date.) Throughout its history, AU has had several strong leaders. Barry, with his quarter century at the helm, will rank high among them.
As Barry moves on to the next phase of his personal life, AU will move on to the next phase of its institutional life.
I look forward to watching both of them prosper.