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Driving with Joe Overholt

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WHEN I THINK back over my childhood, I remember one person who was truly unforgettable.

Within our community Joe Overholt was an authentic individual. He lived a life which broke all the rules. He was a gypsy, a lover of learning, a musician.

He never married, and thus had no children. He left behind no legacy - never published any of the books he started. He spent his retirement funds on lost causes, ending his life penniless, scratching to feed the many dogs who loved him and lived in and around his house.

Yet hundreds of people attended his funeral in Hartville, Ohio. And the affectionate anecdotes told about him could fill a book. Someone once told me that Joe Overholt spoke eight languages fluently, and could understand twelve.

Once you met Joe, it was impossible to forget him, impossible not to love him.

DRIVING WITH JOE was an experience in itself. My youngest brother Richard Denlinger recalls an evening back in the day when he and our siblings Tim and Heidi - who performed as The Denlinger Trio in various churches at the time - had the honor of driving with Joe.

"If you ever saw Joe pull into church, even with a fairly level driveway," my brother told me, "the back end of his car looked like a rabbit humping. Joe would come to a stop and the thing would still be bouncing.

"He once asked us to join him for a church service," Richard said. "We would sing and he would speak. Unfortunately, in his car that we drove up to the meeting, the struts had gone completely out. Joe did not have the time or money to get it fixed.

"The three of us and Joe were bouncing along in a car without struts," said Richard. "The springs were good, though."

Several other parts of the car didn't work either.

"So there we were," he said, "driving along. It was raining and Joe's wipers didn't work. It was also dark and his headlights were out. So Joe held a flashlight out the window as we drove," Richard said. "He was determined to get us to that meeting."

"When we got there," Richard said, "he wanted to sing with our trio. He offered to sing bass. And then he had us sing very slow."

THERE WERE OTHER ways of driving with Joe.

When I was in first grade, my family called me a questionbox. I remember sitting in the front seat of the school bus, just behind Joe, who was driving the bus.

I'm sure he must have gotten tired of my monologues, but never did this kind, gentle man show a trace of impatience with me. He just kept saying, "Is that so? Is that so?"

Of course, he could frighten, as well. I remember one day after school. I was in the first grade, and I was not feeling well. It was November, the air was foggy from the exhaust fumes of the bus, and my older sister and I made our way to the back of the bus.

One of the big boys must have been acting up, because suddenly, Joe picked up the ice scraper with a long wooden handle and came barreling up the aisle. He grabbed the boy, not less than two feet from my first-grade self, and whipped him with the long wooden handle.

MY GOOD FRIEND John Fohner said that Joe took him under his wing.

As a new conservative Mennonite - Fohner was raised United Methodist, and his family didn't cotton much to religion - Fohner knew he had joined a culture, not just a faith, and he needed to learn a lot, quickly.

"I was teaching Sunday school," said Fohner. "I was 20 some years old, still wet behind the ears, when Joe joined my Sunday school class.

"Joe would ask questions," said Fohner. "Once he asked this question regarding assurance of salvation: 'Is salvation something you have now or something you get later?' That was something I couldn't even get my head around."

WHEN HE WAS younger, Joe and his twin brother John produced many albums of a cappella choir music - this was Joe's true love, along with languages.

My parents owned these vinyl records, and I remember listening to them as a child, looking at the album covers decorated with pictures of strictly dressed Amish-Mennonites.

Joe's modus operandi as a tour producer was fairly loose. He would teach for awhile, build up a retirement fund, and then spend it on a tour to Europe. He was fascinated with the Reformation and what it meant to Anabaptist martyrs.

David Gingerich, a Hartville native who often sang with Joe, tells a story about a European tour that Joe led. The story was relayed to me by Fohner.

Joe's choir was traveling by bus in the middle of the night. Joe was praying when suddenly he felt moved by the Lord to teach his group a new song - right then.

So Joe had the driver stop the bus. And there in the mountains, standing alongside the road - white bonnets, long dresses, black plain coats - they used the headlights of the bus to read their music, and they learned the song.

"Joe didn't think too much about consequences," said Fohner, who related to Joe by marriage. "He didn't have what you call a life plan."

JOHN H. MILLER, nephew to Joe, has lived a full life as a father, teacher and musician within the conservative Mennonite community.

Miller has directed The Hartville Singers for several decades as they've traveled across the nation, sharing their tight harmonic blend with loyal audiences. I sang with them from the ages of 16 - 25.

Except for my dad, no other man has affected my life as much as Miller, especially since he is the father of my closest friend and cousin, Marlin. I spent many evenings over there with the family. As I was growing up, Miller taught me to hunt, fish and water ski.

Miller achieved local prominence as a public school science teacher when he clashed with the school board over his refusal to join a union back in the 1970s. The ACLU showed up with a high-powered lawyer to defend him, and Miller made headlines in the Akron Beacon Journal. He won.

JOE COLLECTED DOGS. Perhaps it's because they reminded him of his childhood, the years he spent hunting coon with his twin brother in Virginia.

In Hartville, Joe kept trailers on his property that the dogs lived and bred in.

"He never sold them," said Fohner. "He cared for them. So Joe did what he had to in order to feed the dogs. He was devoted to his dogs. Supposedly, they were money makers, but they weren't. He couldn't bear to part with them."

"Joe didn't have time to take them hunting," said Miller. "Those dogs multiplied and mixed breeds, and Joe had to get creative about how to feed them."

Fohner remembers working as a dishwasher at the Hartville Kitchen, an Amish-Mennonite restaurant in Hartville, Ohio, where people used to line up for hours, waiting to eat its delicious, home-cooked meals. The owners knew Joe.

"We saved food slop for Joe in these huge, five gallon buckets," Fohner said. "Foul smelling meat scraps, gut-wrenching stuff. He would come get these buckets in this little VW thing that he drove. It was a car that he practically had to pedal, and he'd put these bucket full of slop in the back, and you could tell those buckets had been there before."

According to Richard, Nickels Bakery would give Joe a load of day-old food the size of a pickup - all for $10.

"He'd come to church with his car filled," said Richard. "I think at times he was tempted to nibble."

PAUL KURTZ, JR. lives in Hartville today, but when he was young, Joe resided with his brother and sister-in-law in Petersburg, Ohio, about 20 minutes the Kurtz place.

"My dad and Joe spent a lot of time together," Kurtz, Jr. said. "They traveled a lot together. We felt he was part of our family. My brother and I used to watch out for him. We cut his hair. He felt like a million bucks when he left here."

From this relationship with Paul Kurtz, Sr. has come a seemingly endless font of stories. The older Kurtz has virtually no peer as a storyteller. Thus, people like repeating his stories. A lot of stories seem to carry the same theme - Joe's absent-mindedness.

This theme runs through three stories in particular. As I tracked them down, I had to wonder if I was just listening to the same story told several three different ways.

Or maybe Joe just kept getting stranded in Cleveland. Whatever the case, when you compare these stories - or perhaps I should call them legends, since two of them came second-hand to me - a revealing portrait emerges.

THE FIRST TWO stories about Joe's car problems involved the older Kurtz. My direct source, of course, is my brother Richard, who had heard the stories from his son, who had heard them from his father.

One evening, Joe gave Kurtz, Sr. a call.

"I'm up at the Cleveland library," Joe said, "and it seems some people have robbed me of my steering wheel."

So Joe's friend drove up to the Cleveland library and found him. They walked out to his car. Kurtz, Sr. checked it out, flashlight shining. All seemed to be fine. Meanwhile, Joe was casting about for an explanation. He finally found one.

"I must have gotten into the back seat," he said.

ANOTHER STORY had it that Joe had driven his car to the Cleveland-Hopkins Airport, flown out of town to speak, and then returned. When he arrived at his car, there was another problem. So naturally, he called his friend.

All the electricity was out in his car, Joe said. None of his lights worked. He wondered if his friend could come help him.

So Kurtz, Sr. got in his car, drove to the airport, and found his friend. The two men walked out to the parking lot and located Joe's car. Kurtz, Sr. walked back to the trunk and popped it open. Three half-starved dogs jumped out.

Joe's friend examined the inside of his trunk. The dogs had gotten so hungry, they had eaten all the plastic, shorting out the electricity.

THE THIRD STORY came from Miller.

"Joe called his brother John," said Miller. "He told him his car wouldn't start. There was an awful noise coming from his VW Rabbit."

"John was too busy," Miller said. "Since I was his nephew, I was expected to go up and get him. So I rented a tow bar - one that I could hook to my car."

"I paid for it out of my own pocket," he said.

"When I got up there," Miller said, 'it was quarter of 9, raining and cold. I parked alongside the library and went inside. Joe was in the phone booth. It was 15 minute before closing time. He was finally starting to get concerned."

"I asked him, 'How's this thing acting? Have you looked at it?'

"'No,' said Joe."

Miller paused to make a point.

"He hadn't even bothered to pull up the hood to look at the engine," said Miller. "So I did. The spark plug was lying there, unplugged."

"I never got a dime back," said Miller.

JOE HAD A TWIN brother, whose name was John. I have heard legends about these two brothers ever since I was a child.

Of course, blood feuds between brothers reach back to the biblical story of Cain and Abel - and all the way up through to Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It.

But stories of the public conflict between these two brothers became the stuff of legend within Amish and Mennonite circles. Had there been an Amish-Mennonite People Magazine, Joe and John Overholt would have certainly made the Top 25 Most Beautiful People List.

Born in about 1918, the brothers competed fiercely all their lives. This even extended to their dating life, according to my mother, who was one of their cousins.

"When one dated a girl, the other wanted to date her," she said.

The two brothers grew up near Norfolk, Virginia along the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway and the Dismal Swamp. According to their nephew Miller, the twins were "die-hard coon hunters."

"They'd start hunting the swamp, all night." said Miller, "with the water moccasins and everything else. They'd work all day and hunt all night. Those boys were tough.

But then fate stepped in, shifting the balance between the twins.

"Joe had rheumatic fever and was a little more sickly," said Miller. "John was the tough one. But Joe was favored in a way. John felt like the 'elder brother.'"

I was confused by this reference. At first I thought Miller was referring to the Cain and Abel story. I asked him about it.

Not that story, Miller explained. John was referring to the parable of "The Prodigal Son," in which one brother takes his half of the inheritance and flees to the city. When the money runs out, he comes crawling back home - only to be celebrated by his father, while his responsible, elder brother is forgotten out in the fields.

WHAT MUST HAVE BEEN John's feelings as he saw his charming twin brother play the absent-minded professor across his life? When Joe died, his funeral was attended close by hundreds of people, many of them former students.

And that's when John chose to confess his sin.

"John profusely apologized for being the elder brother of the parable," said Miller. "He said he was - he confessed it."

I asked Miller why Joe was so much more popular than John. He tried to explain.

"Joe was a little more tender than John," he said. "John was much more like his father."

YET HERE ARE the facts. John was the more productive of the two twins, leaving a legacy.

John was chosen by lot to be an ordained minister at Hartville Conservative Mennonite Church.

According to Miller, the "elder brother" raised a "wonderful family" that has survived him and now resides in Florida: Vera and her five children: Nathan, Hannah, Abigail, Matthias, and Sarah. They are loyal to their father's memory. They love their mother and follow the conservative ideals of the church.

John also compiled one of the most important songbooks within the conservative Mennonite world: The Christian Hymnary. Privately published in 1972, it is a hymnal of 1002 songs with a strong emphasis on original music from the Anabaptist martyrs.

For the first time, conservative Mennonite and Beachy-Amish congregations were able to sing German songs in English taken from the ancient Amish songbook, The Ausbund. John translated 12 of these songs for his book and set them musically with shaped notes. The hymnal is still used in conservative Mennonite churches.

As a child, I heard my mother tell us about the sacrifices the family was making so that John could spend the time needed to finish the book, and then publish it. In order to support his family and his dreams, John also created a business hauling produce up and down the East Coast. As they grew up, the children would often travel with him. He would have said that he lived by faith.

It was a faith that was real to him, and best illustrated by a story I heard from Greg Yoder, a young man at the time who sometimes accompanied John. One night, the truck broke down. They were trying to fit the hose into the right place, and it simply wouldn't go.

"I saw John pause and bow his head," Yoder said. "And then, unbelievably, the hose went in."

In the midst of this gypsy lifestyle, John created his greatest musical piece.

THE song "I Will Abide" - a piece drawn directly from the Psalms - comes out of John's personal experience. When John wrote it, he was in his late 40s - just about the time he was getting married and starting a family with Vera, a woman much younger than he.

Vera had such an outstanding voice that when she attended Eastern Mennonite College, the vocal instructor refused to teach her - he didn't want to hurt her voice.

John and Vera's relationship had developed slowly. According to my mother, Vera was helping him with his projects for a long time before she got married to him.

With a companion this talented and a family that was becoming five children, John must have struggled to understand the direction his life was taking.

The song was written in 1965, just as his conflicts with the ministry at Hartville Conservative Mennonite Church were coming to a head. He would be silenced approximately a year later "for being too adamantly conservative in his faith and practice," according to Fohner.

I can still see and hear John's family perform this song with slow, methodical grace. Above the four-part harmony, Vera's voice floated light and clean following the high obligato line, a stunning feature that John must have written to display her exceptional voice.

I will abide in thy dwelling place forever
I will thee trust and e're thy covert claim

According to Yoder, this song came to John as he drove truck - alone for long hours on the road, torn by debt-worries, just an entrepreneur trying to make an honest living. What must it have been like, criticized by his community, misunderstood? The song is John's answer to his fears.

I find the song a haunting memory, a cry for understanding. What did it sound like as John first hear it in his head above the roar of his recalcitrant 18-wheeler as it barreled up the East Coast, the refrigerated trailer loaded with boxes of fruit?

For thou oh God hast heard me, thou hast given
The heritage of those that fear thy name.

John's children needed to eat. They needed clothes and a roof over their heads. They were bright and required more attention than he had time to give. The father must have been worried about how to manage everything crowding into his life.

Hear my cry, O God, attend unto my prayer
From the end of the Earth to thee I cry

I don't understand what it's like to be an Amish-Mennonite preacher who has just been silenced, or one who has a dream to create a hymnal, or one who wants to reshape the Church of Jesus Christ into god-fearing people who dress in plain clothes. But I do understand the power of hope.

When my heart's o'erwhelmed, lead me to the rock that's higher
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

And thus, John's yearning for a better future now sticks in my head.

JOE LOVED TO learn. He also had big dreams. So he went to college. It wasn't the norm for conservative Mennonites, but then again, Joe wasn't a typical conservative Mennonite.

Miller's favorite college story about his uncle took place while Joe was attending Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

"He just decided he was going to school," said Miller. "So he took this course because he liked it. And then that course. And he focused in on languages a lot.

"Once Joe had gone to school long enough," said Miller, "he decided he should probably graduate. But at that point, Kent required that you have a certain number of Phys Ed courses.

"So during one semester, all he took was Phys Ed," Miller said with a laugh. "Tennis, golf, swimming."

I thought about Joe playing golf in his black Amish coat and black hat.

TO THE OUTSIDE world, Joe's impact wasn't much - the sound of one hand clapping, I suppose. But within the world of conservative Mennonites, he changed the way music was viewed, mostly because of Miller's work with the Hartville Singers. Miller credits his own musical impact on the conservative Mennonite church to the teaching of Joe Overholt.

While he was going to college, Joe held music schools with his brother John at Hartville. They taught everyone to sing a cappella, four-part music, using solfege - reading notes with the set of syllables do, re, mi fa, sol, la and ti, each representing a different tone on a scale.

According to Miller, it was because of the twins' teaching that the church at Hartville Conservative Mennonite gained its unique sound - beautiful, harmonic, blended.

Giving choir concerts to the lost - which would have been anyone who didn't agree with their Anabaptist theology - was a form of mission work to Joe and John.

I remembered my own experience of going on tour with Joe to New York City in the late 70s. At Time Square, we got out and distributed gospel tracts, standing to sing several choir numbers. This happened before the area got a makeover from Disney and Mayor Giuliani.

I asked Miller if it were true that Joe had often pulled out his retirement monies to fund his trips.

"He sponsored mission projects into Europe," Miller said. "If he needed a tenor and the guy didn't have the money, Joe would pay for it. Joe's heart was in helping people," Miller said, choosing his words carefully. "But he didn't have a lot of judgment."

Unlike his brother, Joe was never able to create a material legacy or passive income. All he could really do was teach.

"Joe wrote all the time," Miller said. "He was always going to write books, but he never got around to it. He had stuff half-written all over the place. His problem was, he was very unorganized."

Fohner clearly saw both the pathos and humor in Joe's life.

"Comedy is tragedy plus time," said Fohner. "Perhaps that's why on reflection, we find Joe to be such an amusing character."

And loved. Underneath all these lighthearted stories, I sensed a lot of affection undergirding the frustration.

WHY DID JOE choose not to get married?

Joe had a powerful desire to bring in the Kingdom of God. Perhaps no woman captured his interest in the same way.

I asked Miller if the rumors were true that the twins had competed for Vera, John's wife. He didn't remember that. But he did recall that at one point Joe had been in love with Vera's sister, Martha. My mother confirmed that. But it never happened.

Joe once told a dinner group why he had never gotten married.

"When I was young," he said, "the girls were all interested. And I wasn't. I was too busy. And then when I got interested, they were all gone."

Miller summed it up best.

"He had too much to do."

MILLER CREDITS Joe as a driving musical force in his life.

"I had him in the third grade as a teacher," said Miller. "And I've been in music all my life because of him." Miller explained that Joe had his third-grade class memorize the notes of one song using solfege.

"I can still sing it," said Miller. "646," he said, giving me the song number by memory: "Often Weary and Worn." And with that, Miller broke into song right there on the phone with me, his baritone voice strong and resonant.

Often weary and worn
On the pathway below

Only Miller didn't sing the words of the song. He sang the notes instead, using solfege.

Do re mi, mi, mi, mi,
Mi fa sol, sol, sol, sol

"He had us memorize the solfege." said Miller. "The do re me's." After years of directing choirs and teaching students, Miller still finds Joe's pedagogical device to be effective in teaching relative pitch.

"Any melody I sing, even today," Miller said, "I can sing the notes."

When Miller considers Joe's legacy, he looks beyond the concrete - and thus believes that Joe's impact was both artistic and spiritual.

"I was influenced by Joe," he said. "And yes, I chuckle over his weaknesses - but I still have a lot of respect for what he stood for."

Due to Joe's teaching in school and at church, Miller points out, "when I heard good music for the first time at Eastern Mennonite College, I became intoxicated" - here Miller's voice rose with passion - "literally, I mean, I went on a high!"

UNFORTUNATELY, JOE'S LAST years were anything but golden.

"He felt abandoned," said Fohner. "I think it was because of the way they handled him at the end."
All through Joe's lifetime, Hartville Conservative Mennonite Church forbade owning or listening to the radio. But several years before Joe died, the church voted to allow it.

"Joe was heartbroken about that - he thought it was such a bad decision," said Fohner.

It was a lesson in politics.

"Before, Joe was able to manipulate by filibustering," Fohner said. "He would get up and talk and not sit down until he got his way. This time, the leaders in the church had decided they weren't going to give into that."

"This really upset him," Fohner said. "He couldn't understand why they wouldn't listen to him."

KURTZ, JR. saw the physical abandonment firsthand that Joe experienced during his last years.

"Joe lived a life that was so rough," he said. "If some of his relatives only knew" - his voice trailed off, and then picked up again - "Just not having the bare necessities of life to survive: food, clothing."

"I remember us as a family," said Kurtz, Jr., "going over there to give Joe groceries. Once, he was cooking literally a possum. He was making stew out of it, due to the fact that the funds weren't there."

KURTZ, JR. DESCRIBED Joe in the colorful language of a martyr.

"He was a peaceful person," Kurtz, Jr. said. "I remember distinctively up in Middlefield, OH - we had street meetings."

These were evangelistic meetings literally held on street corners, sometimes with a loudspeaker system, complete with preaching, prayers, and singing.

"There were Amish up there," said Kurtz, Jr. "I call them the Filthy Amish: beer-drinking, smoking potheads. I remember an Amish guy came up and kicked him, dumping a beer over him, when he was singing."

"That Amish guy grabbed a portion of Joe's beard and actually ripped - I'm talking a good handful of it - pulled so hard that he ripped the beard and some of the flesh out. It knocked him silly, but he just recovered and kept singing."

"JOE'S ENTIRE salvation perspective was Amish," Fohner said. "Salvation is not something you have. It's something you receive after you die - IF you've been faithful.

"That's the Amish belief," said Fohner. "You can't know that you are saved - that's pride.

MY LAST MEMORY of Joe is bittersweet - a postcard. Perhaps he wished to go driving with me. I'm sure he would have loved another tour of Europe. Unfortunately, it never happened.

I knew he was aware of my educational progress. When I ran into him at family reunions, he always remembered me and encouraged me in my studies. I knew he was aware that I had studied abroad.

About a year before he passed, I received my last communication from him on a postcard. It carried a European postmark.

Dear Steve,
Think about studying foreign languages in order to help save poor lost Europe.
Joe

I never could admit to Joe that I had somehow made it all the way through my master's degree with taking a single foreign language course.