Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Wednesday, November 29, 1995

Lightning's last request: Greenway legacy

Chapel Hill Herald, Nov. 29, 1995


CHAPEL HILL -- He picked the name because he has always loved the look of electricity streaking across the night time sky.

"It's just my favorite thing," Lightning Brown said Tuesday afternoon. "It's so exciting. I used to take people out in rain storms just so we could see it."

Like the name he chose for himself, Brown, 47, said he also always has liked to stand out.

That's why he says it was no big deal, when honored for service to Chapel Hill this week, that he used the occasion to ask a favor -- to have the council name the Bolin Creek Greenway after him.

"I don't think anyone was surprised," Brown said. "I don't think there are any other contenders."

And, if the fact that he's dying wins support, Brown said he'll take it -- because he's earned it.

"It puts my life in perspective," he said from his bed at the residence for people with AIDS in Carrboro. "It shows that I've given [the town] the last full measure of my attention until I need it, just for dying."

Allan Brown, the oldest of five children of a Catholic family, was born in Virginia, grew up in Los Angeles and studied German comparative literature at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

He came to Chapel Hill in 1976 to help friends renovate a house. All he knew about his new home, he said, was that Chapel Hill was "the Berkeley of the South."

He interrupts himself and looks over at his sister Nancy, a 42-year-old trial lawyer from Los Angeles who has come to North Carolina to help care for her older brother.

"I think I want my covers," he says, looking down at the blanket folded beneath his feet.

"Are you cold?" Nancy asks. "My arms are cold," he replies, lifting bone-thin arms up and under the blanket. Never a big man, Brown used to weigh 150 pounds. He's down to 102.

He realized he was gay in graduate school when he was 24. "I was a good Catholic boy," he jokes, his eyes expressionless behind large framed glasses. "Which means socially retarded."

He took the name Lightning after he told his parents and they temporarily disowned him.

"They didn't want to have a gay son; they disowned me for about 2 1/2 years," he explained. "So I changed my name as a way of claiming my new identity."

Brown quit his computer programmer job in UNC's Health Affairs Division in the late 1980s to attend law school.

He graduated in 1991. That same year he brought a 10-minute video to the Town Council showing sewage debris and cracked manholes along the Bolin Creek sewer line down the hill from his Clark Road home.

The line had been overflowing after heavy storms for 15 years, Brown said. His persistence -- he threatened the Orange Water and Sewer Authority with the state's Clean Water Act -- pressured OWASA to finally make repairs.

"He was persistent and persuasive, and sometimes that is required to get public agencies to pay attention," said OWASA Chairman Barry Jacobs, who was not on the agency at the time. "Hopefully that wouldn't still be the case."

Ironically, Brown was appointed to the OWASA board of directors earlier this year but could serve only a few months. He moved into the AIDS Service Agency house about two months ago.

"I think it's a pity I didn't get in two years ago," he said. "I just would have had more of a hand in the excitement of taming [OWASA's executive director] Everett Billingsley."

Monday night's recognition honored Brown for serving on the town Planning Board, Greenways Commission, Low and Moderate Income Housing Task Force and Stormwater Management Task Force.

Brown, who most recently lobbied the county commissioners on putting gay people in the county's civil rights ordinance, also was commended for his commitment to "civil liberties and rights, affordable housing, recycling and the environment."

"He's always been in the forefront about standing up for gay rights," said Joe Herzenberg, who worked with Brown for Jim Hunt in the 1980s. "But most of the things he's stood up for have not been gay rights. Nobody has done more for the greenways system in Chapel Hill than he has."

"Some might think it's presumptuous for him to ask [that the town name the Bolin Creek Greenway after him]," Herzenberg added, "but it's highly appropriate."

Chris Moran, the new executive director of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, worked with Brown on the low-income housing task force.

"He was really determined to get it right," Moran recalled Tuesday. "In fact he typed the report himself."

"He's a terrific guy, he's always been for the underdog," Moran added. "We need more like Lightning in this community to remind us of the things that need to get done."

At the AIDS Service Agency residence, Brown continues to get visitors and people seeking political advice. And he continues to speak out for the way he wants Chapel Hill to be.

"We still haven't learned to take care of our poor people," he said, referring to Monday night's report calling for an overhaul of the town's public housing department.

"We're so expensive that if you don't make a certain amount of money you can't be here," he added. "It's a great injustice and great pity. Things used to be cheaper. Rents were cheaper. The percentage of black people was greater."

Brown talked frankly Tuesday and said he wanted to speak about his illness for this article.

"I am dying of AIDS," he said. "I got it from a boyfriend who I didn't have the sense to say `No' to when he wanted to have intercourse without a condom."

He takes 12 to 15 pills a day and is in an experimental drug trial to prevent going blind. Each afternoon he gets hooked to an intravenous saline solution to keep his body from drying out.

Last year Brown fought off lymphoma in the right side of his face with chemotherapy. Last summer doctors finally discovered he had esophogeal reflux, where food comes back up. "I'd choke a lot. It was very difficult," he said.

Now, a good day is being able to sit up for breakfast at the table. Tuesday was a good day, he said.

He even got to visit his Clark Road house. "The views are irreplaceable," he said.

As difficult as Brown's illness has been on him, it has been hard too for family and friends. His last partner cared for him through his cancer, but "ultimately he looked at it squarely and decided it was more than he could handle," Brown said.

A few months ago he had to give up his dog Magic, a mixed breed that sat patiently outside as his master sipped an afternoon latte at a downtown coffee house.

"I wish him as much happiness as we can ring out of every day," his sister Nancy said. "But it hurts. It's like my heart is being torn out."

Grainger Barrett, for whom Brown worked before going to law school, had trouble speaking about it.

"He's the first person I felt close to that I've known to have AIDS," the Chapel Hill lawyer said in a halting voice Tuesday evening. "I have hurt so much. Both my wife and I have always loved him."

Barrett praised Brown, who made an unsuccessful run for Town Council in 1981, for never compromising on his goals.

"He was a brave person when it took a lot more bravery and tenacity to be gay and high profile the way he was," Barrett said. "He never wavered from saying, 'I have the right to be who I am.' "

Brown could have moved back to California to be with his family. But he decided years ago to stay in Chapel Hill, Nancy said, "and we all respected his wishes."

Asked the hardest part of having AIDS, Brown beats around no bushes.

"Wanting to die ... and knowing it's going to take a while," he said. "I want peace."

Photo Caption: PUBLIC SERVANT - Community activist Lightning Brown, presented an award for public service by Chapel Hill on Tuesday, wants the town to name the Bolin Creek Greenway in his honor.

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