2002 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Poverty and success can’t be defined only by money."
Charles Overby was born in 1946 in Jackson, Mississippi. His father was a used car salesman who had chronic problems with alcoholism. "I had a lot of uncertainty in early childhood," says Overby. "My father's alcoholism affected the whole family. You just never knew what would unfold." Overby's parents divorced when he was still quite young, but his father was never able to overcome his addiction. He died when Overby was 14.
After their divorce, Overby's mother went to work at minimum wage jobs. Things may not have turned out the way she had hoped, but she was an optimist who always believed things would get better. "She never had a gloomy outlook," says Overby. "She always made me and my younger brother feel that as long we had each other things would be fine. There was lots of love in our home."
Overby and his brother had paper routes and pooled their money with their mother's at the end of the week. "My mother was terrific at managing money," he says. "She could do more with less than anyone I ever knew. She gave me great lessons in frugality and taught me to appreciate what you have wherever you are in life."
With a competitive spirit, Overby entered a contest to sell the most newspapers in the state. "I went out every night and knocked on doors," he says. He won the contest, which was sponsored by Parade magazine, and was sent with other winners to Europe for 10 days. It was an eye-opening experience for a young man who had never been out of Mississippi. "It gave me a great sense of confidence that I could achieve a goal if I set my mind to it," he says.
When he was a sophomore in high school, Overby took a journalism class and immediately realized this was what he was meant to do. He recalls asking a friend, "You mean they pay you to do this?" He signed on to be a sports reporter for the local newspaper and covered all the high school football games. "I loved it all," he says. "I loved the writing, the newspaper, the ink, seeing my byline-everything there was about newspapers I loved and I still do." Overby became the editor of his high school newspaper, which won the prestigious Pacemaker Award as one of the five best high school newspapers in the country.
Overby wanted to attend the University of Mississippi because of its good college newspaper and journalism department. He had a small scholarship, but the main source of his money came from a variety of journalism-related jobs. He was also the editor of the daily student newspaper. He worked as an assistant sports information director for the athletic department and was a dorm manager. As if that weren't enough, he worked as a correspondent for several newspapers. Optimistic about the future, Overby didn't see these jobs as work. "I always felt I could succeed," he says. "I defined success as being happy in what I was doing and there wasn't anyone happier with their career choice than I was."
Shortly before graduation, Overby covered the 1968 Republican National Convention. He was fascinated with politics and journalism and he saw Washington, D.C., as the great intersection of those two interests. When he was offered the job of press assistant to Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, who was the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Overby jumped at the opportunity. He worked for the senator for a year, and then became a Washington correspondent for three daily newspapers in the South, including the Nashville Banner and the Jackson Daily News. He also wrote a weekly column for 15 other papers in the South. At the age of 22, Overby covered the President, the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Soon, the Nashville Banner offered him a full-time job as a political writer. In 1972, the Gannett Company bought the Nashville Banner. By 1977, Overby was named editor of Gannett's Florida Today. In 1982, Gannett purchased The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, and Overby returned to Jackson as executive editor of both papers. While there, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles about education reforms.
In 1989, Overby became president and CEO of the Gannett Foundation, which was renamed Freedom Forum in 1991. For 22 years, Overby was chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, a non-partisan foundation that educates people about the press and the First Amendment. Overby served as CEO of the Newseum, the museum of news, history and contemporary culture, located on Pennsylvania Avenue from 1997 to 2011. He served as chairman of both organizations from 1997 to 2011.
Looking back over his successful career as one of America's most respected communications professionals, Overby says no success is achieved by individual accomplishment alone. He credits key mentors in his personal and professional development. "I've been blessed all my life with people who cared about me and took an interest in me," he says. "In my early life, my mother guided and supported me. Now my wife is the one I count on. She supported the many moves we had to make to advance my career. I am especially thankful for the guidance I received from Al Neuharth (Horatio Alger Member, 1975). He has an incredible knack for developing young people with potential. I believe my life's mission is to encourage people- there isn't enough of that going on in the world."