Houston homemaker coordinates innovative park project

Seven-year-old Jeff Overby, like many other young Americans, had no park or recreational area where he and his friends could go for picnics and outings, unless someone drove him more than 40 miles. But because of his mother's conviction that there's no "impossible dream," Jeff, now 17, and his 10-year-old brother, Lee, will soon enjoy 4,000 acres of park land and botanical gardens near their home outside of Houston.

Judy Overby, a college-educated homemaker, was intrigued with the recreational potential of Cypress Creek, a lovely winding creek near her home. "I wrote letters, addressed civic groups, and attempted to make my voice heard by city and county leaders," she says. She was told by one local official to forget the whole thing and "go back to playing bridge like other housewives."

Resisting discouragement, Mrs. Overby pursued her goals through the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Under her direction, the organization instigated a study of available park land in Houston and surrounding areas. The study revealed that the fastest growing city in the United States, with the nation's third largest amount of incorporated land, ranked only 146th in park of acreage.

This revelation captured the attention of newly elected County Judge Jon Lindsay. He had already seen the problem and was looking for suitable park sites in the flood-prone area near the confluence of Spring and Cypress Creeks.

"I was leaving for a ski trip," Mrs. Overby recalls, "and the phone rang. It was Judge Lindsay asking if I would assist him in the proposed project."

The determined conservationist is now chief coordinator of an $8 million park land project, the Cypress Creek Project. It is the largest in a series of park projects composing a "world class" park system in the Houston vicinity. The size of the proposed park system is unequaled in American history, and the program is looked upon by US Department of the Interior officials as a pilot program for American cities.

"See these old boots?" Mrs. Overby asks, pointing to a pair of dingy gray boots with a large hole in one sole. "I've purchased over $3 million of land for the country in these boots." The 18 tracts range from 10 to 140 acres each. All land is in the flood-prone area adjacent to the creeks and is unsuitable for subdivisions or businesses.

Money for the project comes from the sale of bonds, cash gifts, and large donations from foundations and corporations. This money is then matched by federal funds funneled from the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, an agency of the interior Department, into the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and then to Houston's Harris County. A 1 cent state tax on cigarettes has produced millions of dollars for park projects.

"When the judge and I learned that it would cost $100,000 to hire a professional fund-raiser for the project, we set out to raise the money ourselves," Judy Overby recalls. Personal calls on presidents of major companies in Houston produced over $1 million. "Our efforts became known locally as the "Judge and Judy Show,'" she says with a laugh.

Workmen are now completing the first park, a 140-acre tract. The project will include jogging trails, hike and bike areas, and boardwalks over the swamplands. Visitors will be able to camp, golf, fish, picnic, hike, and even canoe when adequate rainfall permits.

Also under way are plans for public riding stables. A private company has offered to provide and care for horses, and the county will take 15 percent off the top of the equestrian proceeds for maintaining the parks. The county will provide park security, and trail guides will be available.

Since the League of Women Voters was the first group to listen to her ideas, Mrs. Overby feels that organization can be a useful vehicle in pursuing progressive community projects.

"To any woman wishing to get involved in community affairs, I highly recommend membership in the League or in the American Association of University Women," Mrs. Overby counsels. These organizations take complicated national or local issues, study them, and discuss solutions.

Judy Overby's park project has become a family affair. Her sons often accompany her on field trips. Lee has made two television commercials relating to community affairs, and Jeff recently accompanied her to Washington, D.C., on a business trip.

The "Landlady," as she is often called, has also been offered positions in federal and state government. For now her answer is no.

"I'm a planner," Mrs. Overby confesses, "and in my present position I'm able to carry my ideas through to completion. I buy the land, raise the funds, plan the development, hire the contrac tors, and witness the completion. That's fulfilling!"

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