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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: The deep, unflashy integrity of Congressman John Olver

When you ask those who knew the late John Olver to describe him, you hear of a legacy others would need several lifetimes to achieve. In addition to being a scientist, teacher and activist, he was a “workhorse,” a “public servant of principle” and “a very genuine person.” Then, of course, there’s the descriptor many folks would not associate with some of those terms: politician.

But U.S. Rep. Olver was all of these things. He was a polymath with integrity who represented the people of Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts in Congress for more than two decades. He did so while preferring behind-the-scenes work over time in front of the cameras.

Rep. Olver was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1991 and served until retiring in 2013. He died last week at 86, but his inclination to let accomplishments speak louder than soundbites leaves a legacy that will live on by serving future generations. All who have been dazzled at the Colonial Theatre, enjoyed the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail or watched their kids play basketball at the North Adams Armory building owe thanks to Rep. Olver for securing the funding for those critical pieces of our county’s community infrastructure — even if the late congressman’s humble outlook would prevent him from accepting such a debt of gratitude.

For Rep. Olver, politics was a means to principled ends. He forwent the spotlight, opting to direct it toward the issues that mattered most to everyday people in his district and around the world. His advocacy for universal health insurance and fairer access to care for all Americans presciently shaped today’s national conversation on health care reform. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience as a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, his science background made him a critical thinker and crucial voice on pressing issues from energy to environmental protection. In 2010, Rep. Olver received the Soldier On Award from the regional veterans group for his leadership and actions toward ending veteran homelessness.

And when it came to standing up for those principles, he did not shy away from a fight — or its consequences. He was twice arrested outside the Sudanese embassy in D.C. for protesting genocide and humanitarian crisis — while he was a member of Congress. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, helped to organize those protests and asked Rep. Olver to join.

“The first time I asked him, I noted that we would likely be arrested and spend hours in jail. He agreed right away — his conscience would allow no less,” McGovern wrote in a statement last week. “John knew what was right and just did it. ... His integrity and support of human rights remains a source of great inspiration for me and so many others around the world.”

Indeed, we hope Rep. Olver’s rare combination of a wonk’s mind and an activist’s heart will continue to inspire officials and advocates alike. For our future generation of leaders, this congressman who never lost a race over two decades showed that the principles of integrity and unalloyed public service can survive in the harsh vacuum of politics. And for both high-minded advocates and those losing faith in our democratic republic, Rep. Olver exemplified that doing the right thing still matters even when the odds and the political zeitgeist are against you.

In fact, that’s when it matters most. Rep. Olver was not on the winning side of every vote or movement, from his consistent stance against military intervention in Iraq to his push for still-unrealized comprehensive immigration reform. But when he went to work in a city like D.C. known for the jaded and cynical, he refused to be either — because those qualities would not help him better serve his district and the people of Western Mass. He knew his constituents — many in rural regions, underserved and overlooked — needed substance, not flash. On the issues that concerned him most, he understood that it was the depth of his convictions, not the volume of his voice, that mattered.

It is sad that few of today’s household names in Congress match the character modeled by John Olver. But we are proud and thankful that model’s legacy lives on in Western Mass. May it inspire the politicians and activists of the future at a time when it’s sorely needed.

Rest in peace, Rep. Olver.

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