Home » GivingSpring 2011

Beyond Hardship, Tragedy and Loss, One Family’s Legacy of Hope

by Fiona Soltes No Comment

Elizabeth “Libby” Overby and Lacy Overby

In Lacy Overby’s final years, he began telling his wife of 45 years and children stories they’d never heard. The stories were completely surprising, yet completely consistent. They had always known what was important to him, but now they finally knew why.

He talked about being a boy on a tobacco farm lost in the Depression, a mother having a nervous breakdown, a sister’s death from tuberculosis, and the day his father literally dropped him off at the side of the road because he could no longer afford to care for Lacy and his sibling.

Lacy Overby was only 10.

The Lacy Overby his wife and kids knew was an accomplished scholar and researcher known for helping isolate the Hepatitis B and C viruses. He had earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in science and physics at Vanderbilt University (BA’41, MS’45, PhD’51), and had taught chemistry there in the ’40s. He and his wife, Elizabeth “Libby” Hulette Overby, BA’47, deeply instilled the values of education and working for the greater good in their children.

So deeply ingrained are those values that the family has gone on to establish three scholarships in the College of Arts and Science. The first was from a family tragedy in 1959, then a second in Lacy’s name upon his death in 1994, and a third in Libby’s. That third scholarship was established from a bequest in the will of their daughter, Brooke Overby, a Tulane University law professor who died suddenly in 2009 from a brain hemorrhage.

“What they taught us was that education empowered a person to fulfill their dreams, but your dreams should always include making the world a better place,” says Megan Overby, the eldest of the Overby children. “It was a lesson by example. Our father helped create a number of important discoveries that really altered the lives of millions of people.

“As a child, when you have a parent who does that kind of thing, you can’t help but internalize that mindset toward the meaning of life.”

Dream Big

The family received equal inspiration, however, from their mother. At a time when most women who worked were either secretaries or teachers, Libby studied chemistry.

“My mom was an original feminist,” says Ross Overby, who has spent close to 30 years as an environmental engineer and consultant. “Susan B. Anthony would have loved her. She had guts. She always believed if you had an aspiration, a dream of something big, that you should just do it.” Her son has followed that advice and recently ran for Congress.

Libby Overby grew up in a well-to-do home in Frankfort, Ky., and though her father believed money spent on a woman’s education was money wasted, she found a way to earn her degree anyway. Libby Overby also watched her own mother’s independent—yet compassionate—spirit in action, as down-on-their-luck townsfolk knew to meet her on the back porch if they were in need of food.

Lacy and Libby Overby instilled a commitment to learning and giving in their children, from left, Scott, Brooke, Megan and Ross.

“Now, when we’d visit Frankfort, Mom would never say, ‘Ross, Scott, Megan, Brooke, do these things,’” Ross Overby says. “It was more subtle. It was more like, ‘Dream big.’ When you mix the intellects of my parents together, two people with differing but complementary backgrounds, it was like gasoline and a match. They go together quite well if you want to make a fire.”

When Libby and Lacy Overby, who met while students in the College of Arts and Science, were a young couple, that fire could easily have burned out. They had a son, Stevie, born after Megan, who died from an accidental poisoning at age 3.

“The loss of a child at any age is unimaginable,” Megan Overby says. “But to lose such a young child like Stevie in such a manner? Despite their grieving, throughout my life, I always felt that they were fully engaged in my development and education. The lesson was not to reflect on one’s misfortune, no matter how grievous that may be, but to move ahead…. There will always be people who have more problems than we do.”

The Overbys moved ahead by establishing a scholarship in Stevie’s name before the boy had even been buried.

“It wasn’t like they hemmed and hawed,” Ross Overby says. “It was just, ‘This is what has to be done.’ People were sending sympathy notes and including $5 for the scholarship. There was an immediate need to move on in a constructive manner.”

Find a Unique Path

As the surviving four kids grew up, their parents spoke of Vanderbilt as the place they became themselves. The children were expected to go to college, but not necessarily there. Each was to find a unique path, with the promise that the cost of an undergraduate degree would be covered. There was, however, one stipulation; the family lived in Illinois at the time, and the kids were told to travel out of state for school for the experience.

Scott Overby, the youngest of the Overbys and now a vice president of data warehouse and decision support at Discover Financial Services, applied to Vanderbilt, but attended Emory University after being wait-listed. Megan received a Ph.D. at University of Nebraska-Lincoln in speech-language pathology. Brooke—who got a pass on going out of state since she’d attended boarding school—went to Northwestern University, then became an attorney and highly esteemed professor at Tulane University Law School. And Ross, wanting to head west, earned a bachelor’s at the University of the Pacific and an MBA at the University of Wisconsin.

Yet each member of the family remains connected to the College of Arts and Science through the scholarships and the personal letters they receive from scholarship recipients, as well as the knowledge that without Vanderbilt, no one in their family would have been the same.

Brooke’s decision to honor their mother with a need-based scholarship (plus add funds to the others)—bringing the total value of her bequest to just over $1 million—more than met with family approval.

“We’ve all been impressed with the way Vanderbilt has clearly provided value back to students with these scholarships,” Scott Overby says. “They’re treated as investments. I’ve never personally met any of the kids that have benefited, but it doesn’t matter. The letters from them are so important. I share them with my own kids, too. Maybe they’ll have a little bit of understanding of the legacy my parents created.”

photo credit: Overby family

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