Lynn Fitch | Called to Serve

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by Marilyn Tinnin

In a culture where the term “public servant” conjures up a few cynical thoughts for many citizens, Lynn Fitch is a breath of fresh air. Two words continually ran across my mind as we talked…and talked… and like women do, we talked some more.

Spunk: courage or spirit; quality of mind showing enthusiasm, boldness, energy, courage, determination and motivation.

Calling: a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.

Mississippi’s State Treasurer understands both of those words. The very pretty 51 year old mother of three has been a trail blazer her entire life. With a “cheerleader” personality and an exceptionally sharp intellect, her skill set is evident to everyone. She has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and she never considered her gender to be a reason to restrict her career choices. She also doesn’t remember a time when she did not have a drive toward public service and a sense of stewardship and gratitude to God for the blessings that have been hers.

Bill Fitch, Lynn’s 79 year old dad, was her first hero and mentor. Lynn, the oldest of two daughters, became a “Daddy’s girl” early on. Bill owned a small consumer finance business in Holly Springs, and from the time she was in high school all the way through college and law school, she worked a little here and there for him. Lynn calls that exposure “beneficial” because she learned a great deal about financial accountability, lending, and good stewardship. She gained true “hands on” experience learning what it was really like to run a small business, meet a payroll and what fiscally responsibility involved. She admits that numbers always came easily for her, that she really likes them, and that her dad was thoroughly modern in believing that his little girl could accomplish anything she set her mind to.

Choosing Her Career Path

It was in her seventh grade year that she served as a page in the Mississippi legislature. “That is what really got me going,” Lynn says. She was fascinated with the entire process – introduction of bills, debates, votes. “I liked being involved. I really liked seeing how things are put together. I think that experience pushed me in the direction I chose.”

Lynn certainly wasted no time getting started. She went back to Marshall Academy and promptly got involved in student government serving as both Vice President and then President of the Student Council. When she graduated in 1978 at the tender age of 17, she headed off to Ole Miss where she put herself on the fast track and received her Bachelor’s in Business Administration in two and a half years. Why on earth? Well, in typical Lynn Fitch-style, she was eager to embrace her next challenge – law school.

As one of the youngest first year students and as part of a minority of female students, Lynn did have a keen sense of how very huge this particular pursuit was going to be. At Orientation that first week, as all of the aspiring beginners listened to the usual welcome and warning speeches by faculty and administration, they were told to look around the room and realize that many who sat there on that beginning day would not weather the rigors and demands of law school. Only a percentage would still be there on the day the diplomas were awarded.

Lynn recalls a very “sobering thought” to imagine the possibility of failure. “All of us go through a certain ebb and flow in our relationship with the Lord, but it was in law school that I learned to rely on Him in a way I had not previously.” Not that she was intimidated by the demands or afraid that she lacked whatever-it-took to pass, but she was aware of needing Him – all of Him – in a profound way.

She jumped into the challenge whole heartedly, was elected treasurer of the law school her first year, and graduated a semester early. Do the math. She completed her undergraduate degree and her law degree in a period of five years. At 23, she went to work as a Special Assistant Attorney General with the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office representing the State Bond Commission, Department of Banking and Consumer Finance, Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Finance and Administration, and Office of the State Treasurer.

Lynn Fitch was officially “launched” in her career as a public servant.

Pioneering Women in the Legal Profession

As a young female lawyer in 1984, Lynn Fitch’s career role model was former Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Gandy. “When I graduated and was admitted to the bar association,” says Lynn, “you could round up all the female lawyers in the state and seat us at two tables.” It was becoming more common to find women in what had previously been an all male institution. Lynn and her female colleagues were eager to be a part of the Mississippi Bar Association, to contribute their time and talents to the organization. It was through volunteering for different committees that Lynn’s path collided with Evelyn Gandy’s.

Ms. Gandy, who, at that time, was the only female who had been elected to statewide office, made a conscious effort to mentor the young attorneys. Lynn calls her a “gracious lady who believed in everyone.” She wanted to see women succeed, and she was constantly encouraging the younger women to consider running for office. On more than one occasion she looked Lynn in the eye and asked, “Are you ready to run for something?”

Lynn was forever answering, “No, Governor Gandy. It’s not the right time.”

But Lynn was taking notes, paying attention, and studying everything about Evelyn Gandy – mostly her sincere belief that everyone is supposed to ‘give back’ in some capacity. Such a thought greatly resonated with Lynn because it was a principle she had learned in childhood. Giving back, she explains, might mean being involved in your church and/or your community. But the key thing is you get involved with people because you want to give. It’s a lesson Lynn Fitch had already learned, but under Evelyn Gandy’s wing, she inscribed it on her heart and soul in a deeper way and actively looked for ways to live it out.

As Lynn says, “Governor Gandy was just always there taking the ‘you-can’t-do-that’ kind of attitude out of the discussions.” One of the most significant results of her leadership was the formation of the Women in the Profession committee. Lynn Fitch was the first chair of that committee which is 20 years strong today. It was a goal of the original “Gandy group” as they called themselves, to encourage each other toward running for elective office. There were very few women in any sort of elective offices anywhere in the state in those days.

The most significant accomplishment of the committee has been the Evelyn Gandy Lecture Series which brings in speakers in different areas of expertise who address issues of particular interest to female attorneys. The official objectives of this unique committee are:

To assess the current status of women in the legal profession and to identify career paths of women attorneys and their goals; to identify barriers that prevent women attorneys from full participation in the work, the responsibilities and the rewards of the profession; to assess quality of life issues in the profession which affect both male and female attorneys; to identify unique problems encountered by women attorneys in pursuing their professional careers; to make recommendations to The Mississippi Bar for action to address the problems the Committee identifies.

Lynn’s work ethic and professionalism earned her the respect and the attention of other elected officials. She was appointed to the Mississippi Department of Employment Security as Deputy Executive Director. She served stints with the Mississippi Department of Economic Development, Counsel for the MS House of Representatives, and during her brief time in private practice worked as a bond lawyer with a focus on general and municipal bonds. When Governor Barbour asked her to serve as Executive Director of the Mississippi State Personnel Board in 2009, she probably had more knowledge of state agencies, tax dollars and state finances than anyone who held an elective office!

She had logged 25 years in different positions in government, but she had never put her name out there for elective office. When it became apparent that the office of State Treasurer was going to be up for grabs in the 2011 election, people began to encourage Lynn to go for it. She says, “It was never a plotted strategy to get to this office. I just always wanted to be in public service and the appointed positions gave me that opportunity.”

Even so, she looked back at her “checkered” resume, considered how doors had opened almost randomly for her over the years, and saw the clear hand of God in allowing her the opportunities that had come her way. “I looked at my skill set, looked at the job of treasurer, thought it was a great fit, and prayed for God to please show me if this is what I should do.”

Taking the Leap

Right next to praying for God’s direction was polling her three children on their thoughts. “I sat down with my children, had a family meeting and we talked about what it would take for all of our family to be involved. It had to be unanimous because if someone did not want to participate, I just wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to risk my family,” Lynn says. Mom’s public service was something that was a natural part of life for Mackenzie, Marye Will and John Tucker. They had really never known her not to be involved, and they were rather proud of her.

They had been included in so much of her service that Lynn and the three of them always considered her profession to be a real “bonus” for them all. Their childhood and adolescence had been something of a living Civics lesson. She had juggled her mother role with amazing finesse. There was a “team effort” supportive mentality in their household from the very beginning. But the thought of a campaign added a whole new dimension to the equation.

A campaign puts the entire family under scrutiny. It is demanding physically and emotionally. Lynn was totally at peace with whatever her children wanted. She had already lived her dream of public service with or without an election. Her life was about making an impact – at home and in the world – and she had tasted a little of what that meant. She was content.

Everyone (Mackenzie, Marye Will, and John Tucker) gave their blessing and enthusiastically signed on to campaign for Mom.

Was that her confirmation that God was in this? Almost. A day or two later she opened a new devotional book that 17 year old Marye Will had given her. The first entry began with these words, “This is the year you will do something out of your comfort zone. Be prepared for a big event.” Prophetic? Maybe. At any rate, there was no turning back.

And so began the campaign – a primary, a run-off and then the general election and Lynn Fitch emerged victorious. Sherri Hilton, who served as Lynn’s Communications Director and today fills the post of Director of External Affairs in the state treasurer’s office, says she was constantly amazed at Lynn’s energy and upbeat attitude. Sherri was behind the scenes 24/7 and she speaks of many long days, lots of very long drives, speeches, speeches, smiling, shaking hands, more speeches, and more long drives. The “spunk” factor never dimmed. Lynn seemed to have an endless amount of energy and a committed drive that never flagged.

She began every speech explaining why she was running for Treasurer stating without apology that it was a “faith and family” issue for her. Most of the time, Mackenzie, Marye Will, and John Tucker were right there with their mom. “You can’t serve well unless you have those two priorities in your life. Those would be my priorities no matter what.” Again and again people would come shake her hand after a speech and say, “Thank you for saying that.”

When Lynn took her oath of office on January 12, 2012, she was the second woman to hold the office of Mississippi State Treasurer – the first being her mentor Evelyn Gandy. With her children and her father, her first mentor, beside her…well, it couldn’t get any better than this.

And off to Work

Six months into this new position, the enthusiasm has not waned. Her work ethic, for which she has been noted, has not slacked either. The bible says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). That verse doesn’t mention the “spunk” word, but I think the verse and the noun are pretty synonymous of Lynn Fitch.

Lynn is a master of energizing her “team,” and she operates professionally in that mode in the same way she operates in her family. It is amazing what can be accomplished when everyone is working together for a common goal. One of her favorite team building concepts involves community service. “I just feel like serving is an opportunity for people to grow, to learn more about themselves, and to be so rewarded by the sense of giving to help someone else.” She adds that she has seen individuals who came to work on a common project through one of her office efforts suddenly become a “habitual” community volunteer because there is a level of bonding and of getting outside yourself that is just plain good for the soul.

Everywhere she has worked in an executive position, she has gotten the staff together, talked about interests, causes, pet projects and then let the staff choose what projects they would like to work on together. It’s not a mandatory thing, but once even the reluctant participants give it a try, they, more often than not, want to volunteer again and again.

Different offices in which Lynn has instigated this practice have done everything from “Toys for Tots,” to “Stewpot,” to “The Governor’s Cup,” to “Habitat for Humanity.” Whole families show up to help, and the camaraderie that carries over into the office creates a very positive synergy.

In the area of policy, Lynn hit the ground running. The Unclaimed Property Division of the state treasury is the repository for unclaimed assets from forgotten bank accounts, uncashed checks, security deposits, utility refunds, estates, escrow accounts, and lost refunds. So far, the treasurer’s office has returned more than three million dollars to individuals through a very simple on-line search program where citizens can search for their names. There is no red tape that makes it hard.

Another of her potential pet projects and one she calls a “cornerstone for our educational process” involves a Financial Literacy course for 10th and 11th graders in public schools. It was the education she received early on by working in her father’s consumer finance business that taught her invaluable financial basics. She took that education for granted realizing years later how few of her peers had the slightest inkling of what Financial Literacy involved. What is insurance? What is a mortgage? How do you pay your bills? Why is all of this important?

To Lynn, it is part of creating an educated work force that will only enhance the effort of enticing new industry to Mississippi. Financially literate employees tend to be good stewards in a job and in a community. There are several states where Financial Literacy, a half-semester course, is required for high school graduation. Several schools in Mississippi are providing it now, but she feels like it will have a huge impact on future economic development if every school teaches it. In the long run, financially literate citizens will have a great positive effect financially on their state.

And the “Spunk” Gene is Hereditary

Mackenzie, Marye Will, and John Tucker continue to encourage their mom. Mackenzie, who was diagnosed with Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes at age 14, is a fourth grade teacher at Madison Ridgeland Academy. She and her husband Drew Burns are expecting their first child in ?? Mackenzie delights in being the “go-to” person at MRA for any student or teacher or coach who has a question about Diabetes.

Marye Will is a senior at MRA this year and may have a touch of her mother’s ambition. She is the secretary of the MRA student council. She is a cheerleader and plays soccer.

John Tucker is a ninth grader who loves any sport that involves a ball. When Lynn was asked to throw the first pitch at a Braves game this spring, he was very concerned and assumed the responsibility of being sure she did not embarrass him. To insure that she executed the pitch correctly, he spent days practicing with her. His mom did not disappoint. She mastered the full out stretch pitch and succeeded in throwing it straight to the catcher.

According to Lynn, it has been her God-given ability to organize and multi-task, along with God’s amazing grace that has enabled her and her children to live what could have been a chaotic life – but really wasn’t chaotic at all. “We get organized for the week. We keep a big calendar that tells us who’s going where and what ballgames are happening and all the logistics of getting there on time. They understand that I have responsibilities, and I think it has been a positive thing that they see me in a working position making an impact,” Lynn says.

She has managed to attend almost every sporting event, but on those rare occasions she has to miss one, there are always numerous texts back and forth sending love, thoughts, and prayers.

The fact that their mother has made it important to participate in community has been an easy-to-adopt value for all three of them. Including them so often in her volunteer efforts has given them all a certain independent spirit as well as a generous desire to give back in the same way Mom does.

For Lynn Fitch, public service really is a “calling.” She laughs that the kitchen is not her strong suit and confesses that she has a great secret. “I have learned to buy with the best of them. The trick is to bring your own dishes and let the caterer put the food in them!” (This is a girl after my own heart).

In earnest and with her characteristic spunk and a good measure of wisdom she speaks about women, traditional roles, and the culture of today. “I think God gives us the opportunity to learn and to be skilled and we should give those skills back in some form or fashion. I think women need to participate (in elective positions) because we bring so much to the table. As mothers and as women we have a whole different perspective. We understand multi-tasking. We understand juggling. We understand emotions. It’s not all black and white. And women in authoritative positions can really garner up teams. That’s what you really want in the workplace. You want to have great teams. I think women are good at that. We know how to rally the troops. We get our team involved; we make them feel empowered; and they make an impact. That’s extremely important to me in whatever position I’m in. I want everyone I work with to be successful in their job.”

Reminds me of something the apostle Paul said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3,4).

About Lynn:

  • Favorite Scripture: Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
  • Church: First United Methodist Church, Madison
  • Favorite Author: John Grisham “…because he was a legislator when I was Ways and Means Counsel. When you spend your workdays staring at numbers and work-related reading, I like to escape with fiction. Novels and mysteries are my favorites!”
  • Toughest Part of Treasurer’s Job: “…Running a big financial institution with a lot of moving parts. The toughest thing is getting my arms around all the different facets of this office.”
  • Best Part of Treasurer’s Job: “We are making an impact – we are actually touching people’s lives. Whether it’s college savings, the IMPACT program,, some kind of economic development, we are making a difference.”