I remember my first day of work at Americans United very well. It was a day in November of 1987, and I was just 24 – yet here I was being given an opportunity to start a career doing something that meant a lot to me – defending the separation of church and state. I felt very lucky. Americans United at that time was in a transition period. The executive director then, Robert L. Maddox, was working to strengthen the group. He had hired a full-time legal director with the aim of boosting AU’s legal program.
Bob was a Baptist minister, and he missed the pulpit. Early in 1992, he announced that he was leaving AU to pastor a church in Maryland. I knew that AU was at a critical juncture. The next executive director would have to carry on the rebuilding that Maddox started, or we might not survive.
It would not be an easy job. Thankfully, AU’s Board of Trustees chose just the right person to take it on: Barry W. Lynn.
I knew Barry by name and reputation. I had interviewed him for Church & State in 1991 when he was with the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union. I knew he had a passion for (and commitment to) church-state separation. That was exactly what AU would need.
As he settled in, I quickly began to learn new things about Barry: 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. 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 was a pleasure 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 staffer to four and got AU more active in the states. He understood the value of strong AU chapters, so he grew that department as well. 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 it was 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.
When Barry announced his retirement recently, I was 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.
I also know that Barry, as important as he has been to Americans United, should not be confused with being Americans United. Americans United was founded in 1947 – one year before Barry was born. AU has had the good fortune to have several executive directors who served long tenures, and Barry’s quarter century 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.