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

About Joe

My photo
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.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Exemplary Regional Leadership by an Elected Official 2007 Recipient: Joe Herzenberg

"Regional Leadership Honored with Goodmon Awards," 12/13/07

On Monday, December 10, 2007, Leadership Triangle turned its annual awards presentation into a family reunion of sorts. The Goodmon Awards Gala celebrated Triangle family values and recognized the connection between the citizens of the many cities, towns and counties in the central North Carolina area. The event also celebrated the accomplishments of several Triangle individuals and organizations.

And the Goodmon Award Winners Are:

Exemplary Regional Leadership by an Elected Official
2007 Recipient: Joe Herzenberg

Joe Herzenberg was a true leader. He worked tirelessly to promote and protect civil rights and liberties for all people. As our state’s first openly gay elected official, he broke down barriers for future generations of legislators and created a more diverse body of elected officials in Orange County and across the state.

That election began a slow march, a journey, that led to Carrboro becoming the first municipality in the South to adopt domestic partnership benefits, and to Jim Neal becoming the first openly gay man to run for US Senate in North Carolina.

Mike Nelson accepts the Elected Official Award in memory of his good friend Joe Herzenberg.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Franklin Street's unofficial mayor remembered

Chapel Hill Herald, Nov. 16, 2007


CHAPEL HILL -- His friends remembered him as courageous, cranky and caring, a world traveler who always returned to his favorite spot on Franklin Street, a postcard-sender, a movie-lover, a book-giver and a patriot.

Joe Herzenberg, who died from problems related to diabetes at the age of 66 on Oct. 28, was remembered during a memorial service Thursday at the Chapel Hill Kehillah. About 175 people, including state senators, mayors, councilmen, aldermen, activists and old and new friends attended the morning service.

Although publicly Mr. Herzenberg was known as the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina -- winning his race for Chapel Hill Town Council in 1987 -- and was admired for leading the way and opening doors for other young politicians, both gay and straight, to many he was also a dear friend.

State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, who worked with him on many Democratic party events and issues, told of going to the movies with him for years and years, and then having dinner together afterward at Margaret's Cantina. "If I was reading a newspaper article late at night, I could call him at midnight to talk about it and know Joe would be up," Kinnaird said.

Traveling the world

Mr. Herzenberg, who sometimes sat in front of Pepper's Pizza with his trademark floppy hat and was known as the mayor of Franklin Street, had traveled throughout the nation and the world, including trips to Antarctica and Africa during the last years of his life.

His best friend, Kathie Young, remembered sleeping in a tent in Africa as the rain poured down. Mr. Herzenberg wrote in his journal how nice it was to sleep with the sound of the rain on the tent, "and how he got a good night's sleep because he couldn't hear Kathie snoring," she said with a laugh.

On his trips he studied the history, the culture and the country, said his friend Jonathan Courtland. "What he learned really helped inform his idea on how he could better help his community," Courtland said.

He met his goal of visiting all 50 states, and when he traveled he sent his friends postcards with little notes on them. "I'd love to see if we would all stack our postcards up how big the stack would be," Courtland said.

Mr. Herzenberg, described as a voracious reader, also was known for giving books away. Sometimes a friend would open the front door in the morning to find Mr. Herzenberg had left a book on the doorstep, or a friend's child would receive a book as a gift when Mr. Herzenberg stopped by for a visit.

Mr. Herzenberg, described as a patriot who loved the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, loved gathering with his friends, listening to Mozart and operas and talking about politics.

Leonard Rogoff, the founder of the Chapel Hill Kahillah, summarized Mr. Herzenberg's Jewish philosophy. "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat."

Memorial collage at Margaret's Cantina after Joe's service. Photo by Ruby Sinreich.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

We were family

Tribute by Kathie Young at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

Joe and I were best friends for about 30 years. We were family. All of you are aware of the various contributions Joe made to our community and society so I am not going to talk about any of them.

We traveled to Alaska and Africa together during his last years. We talked on the phone several times a day. Wednesday nights we had dinner together followed by grocery shopping. When he felt up to it after shopping I would leave him at Cafe Driade and Mark K. would give him a ride home.

As best friends we shared each others' joys and sadness. I am privileged to have been able to help Joe enjoy a more comfortable life for the past year. All of the time I spent with him will forever be with me.

Once several years ago Joe asked me to go to the movies to see Daniel Wallace’s “The Big Fish.” I asked what it was about. Joe said, “It’s about the kind of funeral I want.” I was surprised as the movie began because I didn’t understand what Joe meant. Midway through the movie I understood and both Joe and I cried like “girls” till the end. Those tears were wonderful tears of love, joy and understanding.

I left the theater knowing that Joe wanted me to be the person piecing together the stories he had gathered over the years. And I, too, like Will Bloom, began to understand Joe’s great feats and his great failings. I am so happy Joe let me carry him into the water.

I want to thank my husband, Roy, for being so understanding of my absences and my two sons, Fred and David for offering me so much strength and support when I needed it.

I will also miss Joe and am so happy that he was such a huge part of our lives.

Joe in Africa, 2006.

Friends Remember Joe

Tributes from Shirley Dreschel and Rep. Verla Insko, as read by Kathie Young at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

"These won't be new words heard today about Joe...kind, insatiably interested in subjects he wanted to know about, look-you-in-the-eye caring, loyal, trusting, lived a life marked by the spirit of adventure, inspired questioning, sweet...and there I want to pause and share that three days before Joe died, I received a box of 'Shirley' tulips from him. We had only days before shared in the Harris Teeter parking lot, (accompanied by Bev Kowalec), a plan for him to visit our farm and see our gardens in the spring. Joe had sent me three such boxes in the past. He is, and will be, a very real part of me. In each tulip face I will see his sweet, jovial, light-up-the-world smile and will be encouraged to reflect it in the world. Thank you Joe."

Shirley Dreschel

"I don't have anything profound to say. Joe was just such a constant presence in local Democratic politics and a dependable and wise counselor for me that my political world seems out of balance without him. For me, he provided some kind of solid link with what is right about the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community. I didn't ever see a chink in his armor, and I disagreed with those who did. I just wanted to be with other people who had the same kind of experience with him.

I'll be thinking about you all and Joe on Thursday."

N.C. Rep. Verla Insko

Joe's passion for life

Tribute by Jonathan Courtland at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

Different people in different places have written of Joe's myriad of social works. Obviously these need to be remembered; they were his greatest passion. But they weren't his only one. I loved Joe's passion for life - his love of people of all stripes, of movies (what great reviews!), of opera, Mozart, Vermeer, fine food (of course not furry creatures - he loved them as well), good tea, of travel all over the world and much more.

It's nice to recount some of these more personal things to each other. Also, because of his nature, we are all having to help fill in the blanks. I think I can help on a couple things. As for his Judaism, I believe Joe was bar mitzvahed at 13. This is classic Joe - I don't think his father practiced his religion, but Joe, after having read about many different faiths, decided he wanted to be a practicing Jew. As a teenager, Joe was often called to the synagogue to help make a minion (10 adult Jews needed for God to hear their prayers). I do think his faith became more important to him over the last few years.

Joe didn't quite get to all the Vermeers - I believe there were a couple in Germany and another somewhere else in Europe that he missed. (Though if he did see all the ones on public display he planned on knocking on the door of the woman who owns the one not publicly shown - I think a widow of a Johnson & Johnson heir in NJ - I always liked the mental image I have of this possible encounter).

He decided he wanted to concentrate his last travels elsewhere. He did make it to all fifty states. The last couple were within the last few years. One of my favorite Joe postcards was from his last state (Missouri?) - it said only "How about the territories?".

Concerning his papers, Joe did mention to me a number of times over the last few years that he wondered if Wilson Library would be interested. He wrote in his journal daily from the day Stalin died (1956?) until he fell ill a couple years ago. I, for one, would certainly be interested in reading what he wrote. I sure do miss him.

Remembering Joe

John Dittmer's tribute as read by Gerry Cohen at Joe's memorial service in Chapel Hill, Nov. 15, 2007

Joe Herzenberg and I first met 40 years ago, in Mississippi. I had applied for a job in the history department at historically black Tougaloo College. Joe was the chair of the department. He was also the director of the Freshman Social Science Seminar, an experimental program funded by the Ford Foundation; a faculty leader, working to initiate much-needed curriculum reform; and a civil rights activist, who had been jailed after a demonstration in Canton, a mean, racist town twenty miles to the north. Joe was 25 years old. When I came down for a job interview, Joe was not terribly impressed with me, and had his own candidate for the job. Fortunately for me, Joe was overruled by the college president, and I was hired. (Six weeks later the Ku Klux Klan bombed the campus home of the academic dean. He lit out for the territory, and I was appointed dean. So for the next two years I was Joe’s “boss,” a fitting turn of events, as I was always quick to remind him!)

For those of us who taught at Tougaloo in the late 1960s, this was a memorable time. My wife Ellen and I became good friends with Joe and the other young professors (the average age of the faculty in our Social Science Division was 26). The civil rights movement was winding down, and black power was ascendant. Although the college now had a black president, Tougaloo’s faculty was still overwhelmingly white, and the students were demanding more black faculty and academic content. They turned their wrath on the Freshman Social Science Seminar, and Joe and I watched while they fed a bonfire with copies of their next assigned reading, Division Street America, written by Studs Terkel, whom they knew only as a “white man.” (Two years later, when Studs came to the college, and was walking across the campus, he spoke glowingly of the Tougaloo student body. Joe and I did not have the heart to tell him that he was standing on the very spot where his book was burned!)

Racist violence was still a reality in Mississippi in the late 1960s. One of my favorite “Joe stories” occurred when several of us white faculty went downtown one evening to see a movie. When we walked out after the showing there was a disturbance in the lobby. It seems that a white exchange student at Tougaloo and his black date, there for the second show, were being harassed by what looked like the makings of a white mob. After shouting the usual epithets, they warned him that they would be waiting for him after the movie ended. As faculty, we knew we had to do something, so we retired to our favorite black bar to plot strategy. There we decided that two of us would wait inside in the lobby, then whisk away the couple into a car (driven by my wife), parked in front of the theater with the motor running. Joe was to be the lookout. When we arrived back at the theater shortly before midnight everyone took their assigned positions. The street was totally deserted. And there, across from the theater, was our lookout, Professor Herzenberg, standing under a streetlight, pretending to be absorbed in a newspaper. It was a scene right out of a “B” movie, and we all cracked up, despite the imminent danger facing us. The movie ended, the couple came out, there was no white mob, and we all repaired back to the bar to recount our heroic deeds.

Joe was jailed during civil rights protests in 1964, but this gag photo was taken at the last ever segregated (“colored”) county fair in Jackson, Mississippi, 1965.

Joe left Tougaloo in 1969 (I believe), having gotten a grant to enroll at UNC to work on his doctorate. Like most Tougaloo faculty, he had come to the school fresh from completing an M.A. Joe was planning on returning to Tougaloo, but one thing led to another, and he stayed in Chapel Hill. Several factors accounted for his decision not to return to Tougaloo. The “end” of the activist phase of the civil rights movement and the departure of several of his close friends influenced his decision. There was also his increasing interest in the career of Frank Graham (his dissertation subject), and his love affair with Chapel Hill. And we noticed that Joe was becoming more involved in politics, not as a subject for abstract discussion but as a participant.

In the summer of 1972 the Democratic National Convention was being held in Miami. The Mississippi Loyalist Democrats had booked a bunch of rooms at the convention hotel, and was not able to fill them. They looked for volunteers, and I asked Joe, then at Chapel Hill, if he wanted to go. The two of us went to Miami, and spent three long days and nights observing events. On Friday night the session dragged on and on. It was clear that George McGovern was to be the Party’s nominee, but his enemies were being obstructive. Finally, at five in the morning, with most of Mississippi’s delegates and alternates having left the building, Joe and I got to go to the floor as credentialed delegates, where we voted on a series of amendments the McGovern people did not want to bring up in prime time. I remember our walking out of the convention hall as the sun was rising, and Joe was not weary, but instead exhilarated by the experience. If he was not already hooked on a political career before that convention, he certainly was from that early morning on.

We stayed good friends with Joe down through his Chapel Hill years (a story better told by his local friends). Over the past couple of years I have had research to do at Wilson Library, and each time I was in town Joe and I would spend time together at his favorite local haunts. And then he almost died. His recovery was miraculous, and he told all of us how blessed he was and that now he was going to take care of himself. So it was disheartening to come to see Joe in his last year, sitting in his pajamas, barely able to move. His health was deteriorating rapidly, and he may well have decided there was nothing he could do about it. Kathie Young’s e-mail on that last day stated that Joe had given instructions not to receive life support at the hospital. When she got back to us later to say that Joe had died at 6:15, Ellen said “Good for him.” Joe was now at peace.

I’m writing this now because I will not be able to come to Chapel Hill for Joe’s memorial service, and I wanted to add my “Tougaloo tribute” to those many moving remembrances from his North Carolina friends. Joe touched our lives, and improved them. And we’ll keep hearing his booming voice and hearty laugh, coming from under that outrageous floppy hat, for as long as we have memory.

John Dittmer
DePauw University, Indiana

Joe on election night at Open Eye Cafe in Carrboro, 2005.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No one like Joe

I can't remember when Joe and I first met but it had to be a long time ago - in those fine days when he was serving for the first time on the Town Council and when gays boys dared to walk down the street holding hands and even kissing - even if only occasionally - in public - before the Reagan years made the street less friendly.

It's not easy being a gay poet in North Carolina - and it's not just because of the poetry establishment, but also because the gay community can sometime ignore poetry as gingerly as the rest of society. Joe was always interested.

Running into Joe on the street was pleasurable always, enlightening frequently.

When we ran into each other he would ask what I was writing and what I was thinking. Joe never hesitated, either, to open his purse and contribute financially to projects I was working on, or to offer to buy my works - although because I felt I owed him so much I would never let him buy. As with everyone else, he wanted to talk movies too, and that was always a source of debate, good cheer, dismay, and excitement. I was surprised and delighted when a framed photograph of giraffes appeared in the mail one day after Joe's trip to Africa.

Joe also stepped forward, when few others did, after I started the Save West House Coalition. He wrote letters, he talked, he encouraged. I'll never forget his generosity then - nor how we both lamented the passing of many charms of Chapel Hill and wondered why progress had to mean destruction for some of the things we loved. We agreed it didn't have to.

When I moved to Chapel Hill in 1975 the town had lots of eccentrics. Joe wasn't one then, but I was glad he became one. He was one of the last. Luckily there are still a few around, but no one like Joe. My partner, Stanley Finch, and I will miss him. Love you Joe!

Jeffery Beam
UNC-Chapel Hill

Joe on the move in Africa, 2006.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Service Thursday for Herzenberg

New Jersey Herald, Nov. 12, 2007


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Civil rights activist and former Franklin resident Joseph Herzenberg will be honored with simultaneous memorial services in Chapel Hill and at F. John Ramsey Funeral Home in Franklin on Thursday at 10:30 a.m.

A former history professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Herzenberg died Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007, due to complications from diabetes. He was 66. After relocating to Chapel Hill in the 1970s, he became the first openly gay elected official in the state when he won a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1987.

"A lot of people think of Chapel Hill as being this liberal bastion, but it was a fight," explained Herzenberg's friend and current Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt, noting that Herzenberg had been temporarily appointed to the council in 1979, but lost his bids for reelection in 1981 and 1983. After barely winning the last open seat in 1987, Herzenberg went on to become a popular public figure throughout Chapel Hill.

"It's not that he just knew all the businessmen on (Chapel Hill center) Franklin Street, he knew all the homeless guys by name," said Mark Chilton, mayor of Carrboro, N.C., and former Chapel Hill Town Council member. "He saw all those different people as individuals to be represented. He had a great sense of humor, and I think for a lot of folks from Chapel Hill, he's a figure that people very much associate with the town."

Throughout his years on the council, Herzenberg fought to fund the town library system, register the downtown area as a historic district, and preserve town parks with a greenway system of bicycle paths and walking trails connecting them all.

"He really set the bar for environmental protection and preserving open space, as well as using his seat on the council as a place to speak about equality and justice issues," said Kleinschmidt, adding that these issues made Herzenberg the No. 1 vote-getter upon his re-election in 1991.

"He was extremely popular, becoming himself part of the heart of Chapel Hill. He really left this (town) a better place."

Though he had traveled all over the world, Chilton said, "Joe was very proud of being from New Jersey, particularly from that northwestern area. He would always scold people who had anything negative to say about New Jersey, and point out that most folks who said such things had never been to the parts of New Jersey that were really beautiful."

Herzenberg is survived by his brother, Robert Herzenberg; sister-in-law, Deborrah Herzenberg DiMatteo; nephew, Michael; and niece, Sarah. He was predeceased by a brother, David C. Herzenberg, who was a prominent Sussex County attorney who once headed up the Somerset-Sussex Legal Services and did much pro bono work on behalf of the needy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

My friend, Joe Herzenberg

Since late October, I'll come upon things and subconsciously think how much fun it would be to discuss them with Joe. He was a great friend for 55 years, and I miss him.

After I learned he'd died, I wrote a brief summary of how I remembered Joe, since pretty much everything online then was about after he'd graduated from college.

My friend, Joe Herzenberg, died on Sunday, October 28, in Chapel Hill. I was shocked and saddened to learn of his death, but not overwhelmingly surprised. I had visited Joe in Chapel Hill in April and was disappointed to find his health had deteriorated significantly since I last visited him a few years ago. If you “googled” his name shortly after his death, there were tens of thousands of items retrieved—obituaries, short biographies, and personal reflections—but in almost every case, these begin at the time Joe left graduate school at Yale or when he arrived in Chapel Hill. There was almost nothing about the first 25 or 30 years of his life. Those of us who lived in Franklin, NJ, and went to school with Joe had the good fortune of knowing this very unique and wonderful person during that time, and many long-term friendships resulted.

A week or so before I visited Joe in North Carolina earlier this year, he called to tell me he’d been having some problems with his legs and was undergoing some treatments. Because of this, he said, he was having trouble getting around. He said he definitely wanted to go out to eat when I got there, but that he’d be just a bit slower. He did indeed have serious mobility problems when I was there, but I’m afraid there were other health problems he didn’t want to talk about. Getting across a room was a chore, and getting him to and from a local restaurant for lunch was very difficult.

During our entire visit, he held onto his cell phone, which rang constantly. He’d look at the name or number—and generally it was a local politician or a friend or some higher-up in the Democratic party—and Joe would say it could wait until later. Then, when we arrived at the restaurant and were trying to get him out of the car, his walker positioned, etc., his phone rang again. This time he looked at the phone and said that this was very important, and he had to take the call. For all his urgency, it could have been a congressman, a senator, an ambassador, whatever. It turned out it was his niece in New Jersey calling to tell him about colleges, or options she had—something like that. Joe was totally and genuinely absorbed in the call, and would have continued talking forever. That, I think, speaks to his loyalty and his priorities. He was extraordinarily loyal to his family and his friends, and always put them above anything else in his life.

Joe did a lot of work for progressive issues he supported, including championing the rights of minorities, racial injustice, affordable housing and the environment. He was enthusiastic, tenacious and relentless in things he believed in and in recruiting others to his cause. If you ever gave Joe a “maybe” or “I’ll think about it,” you were finished, because he’d continue to hammer on you until you came around. Joe could be stubborn in his pursuit of what he believed in. He was a very tolerant person and had basic principles that pretty much dictated what he did with his life.

I first met Joe when I was 11 years old and we were classmates in 7th grade. We were good friends through Junior High and High School. After high school, we communicated primarily through letters. Joe was a prolific letter writer. He probably wrote about every one or two weeks and somewhere I still have stacks of those letters, mostly handwritten, and usually stuffed with newspaper clippings from the New York Times or the New Jersey Herald. He was always reading something and was a very intelligent person.

After he moved to Chapel Hill, he changed from letters to postcards, usually with one thing he wanted to communicate or often a question. Ignoring the question just got you another postcard. I told Joe late last year I’d come down for a visit “sometime soon,” but had no idea when. Between then and the time in March when we decided on a date, I got at least four postcards from Joe, asking when I was coming—the last asking “When, if ever, are you coming?” You would have thought with computers, the Internet and especially e-mail, Joe would have been a logical candidate, but he wasn’t. He never much liked e-mail or computers, preferring postcards, phone calls, and especially talking face-to-face with people. Also, for many years, he never had a television. After he got one (relatively recently), he decided it actually did have some merit.

Last year I got a postcard from Joe saying that he was sending me one of the most important documents of the 1950s. The next week I got another, telling me to be on the lookout for something that was “worth its weight in gold.” Finally I received an envelope with a very small (maybe 3” x 2”) piece of yellowed paper. The writing was in pencil, and read, “Please excuse Joe and Roy from class to do Spotlight [our school newspaper] work,” and it was signed by Mr. Weeks, our school newspaper advisor. I guess Joe decided I needed this, but really it was an amazing thing to have when we were seniors. You could just show this to a teacher and get excused from class. Joe would often surprise me with unusual and unexpected things. He had an excellent sense of humor and was full of life and laughter. He had a mischievous grin and genuinely enjoyed a good gossip session or just reminiscing about growing up in Franklin.

Finally, I believe the thing I’ll most remember about Joe is his kindness. Joe was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known, and he was that way his entire life. Back in Franklin Junior and Senior High, when new students joined us from other schools, Joe was one of the first people to meet them, talk to them and make them feel welcome. I heard from a friend recently who said that when she came to Franklin High, Joe was one of the first people who reached out to her, welcomed her, and got her involved in some school activities. It was very important to her then, and she never forgot it.

These are some of the things I’ll remember about Joe: his enthusiasm, his loyalty, his tenacity, his tolerance, his intellect, his stories, his principles, his sense of humor, and his kindness. Joe worked hard to make the world a friendlier and more peaceful place. Personally, I’ll miss him very much, and I know a lot of others will also.

Roy Timmer
Hockessin, DE

Joe, hiding out in Franklin, NJ, 1940's

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Oral history interviews featuring Joe

The Latest Outrage, Nov. 6, 2007

Two oral histories featuring Joe are available for listening online from Documenting the American South, a project of UNC-CH's Southern Oral History Program.

The first is from November 22, 1976 (the 13th anniversary of JFK's assassination), and features Joe interviewing Anne Queen, legendary former director of the Campus Y at UNC-CH in the 1950s and 60s. They discuss the history of radical politics in the South and Chapel Hill during those years, activism in the 70s amidst the "growing apathy of students on university campuses," and hopes for the future following Jimmy Carter's election in 1976.

The second is an interview with Joe taped almost a decade later, on November 18, 1985. He is identified as a "Chapel Hill politico," and explains his support for the controversial issue of the day, OWASA's construction of Cane Creek Reservoir. Joe also comments on the local political scene, and mixes in helpings of his own political philosophies, like this gem:

"To be American means having to deal with change. That is what is so strikingly obvious to me about what American History is all about. We have been, for more than two centuries now, a very dynamic country where things are always changing. It's difficult for people to deal with that and accept that, even though we have a tradition for it."

Joe outside Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, 1990

The endnotes of this particular interview's transcript are labeled "About Joe Herzenberg, Interviewee." They were clearly written by Joe himself, and made me feel like I'd discovered one of his final, hidden jokes when I found them:

Joseph Herzenberg, a native of Franklin, New Jersey was born in 1941, professes a Master's Degree in European History from Yale University. Tired of being a student, and following the removal of a kidney, he “was tired and needed a rest” so he undertook a teaching position at Tougaloo [Mississippi] College where upon he came to realize that he was “never [more] tired in my life. It was exhausting!” He has been a resident of Chapel Hill since 1969, currently sharing his abode with one “Harriet Levy” who was reluctant (by omission) to espouse the interviewee's political alignment—democrat, “both kinds”. Asked to wrap up his feelings about this issue in nutshell, Herzenberg magnanimously responded, “I'm sorry if people have to suffer sometimes, particularly if they're straight.”

UPDATE 12/12 - Two additional oral history interviews with Joe are archived for listening as part of the Southern Oral History Program at the Southern Historical Collection Manuscripts Department in Wilson Libary, UNC-Chapel Hill. One from 1995, conducted by current SOHP special projects coordinator Joseph Mosnier, is nearly four hours in length, and was Joe's most in-depth, wide ranging recorded conversation about his life and times.

There is no transcript of this interview, but the interviewer's field notes, a handwritten life history drawn up by Joe, and a tape log that summarizes in detail the topics covered are all on file and available for viewing online.

The other interview, from 2000, was conducted by Chris McGinnis as part of a 2000-2002 oral history project called Listening for a Change: History of Gay Men and Transgender People in the South. The entire interview has been digitized, indexed, and can be accessed online. A complete 43-page transcript is also available online.

UPDATE 12/18 - Besides his previously mentioned interview with Anne Queen, Joe also recorded several other oral history interviews with N.C. political figures as part of his research into the life of Frank Porter Graham.

They included the Rev. Charles M. Jones (who was a key figure in Chapel Hill’s desegregation movement during 1963-64), former Graham confidant Charles Phillips Russell, noted Southern liberal and N&O editor Jonathan Daniels, and oral history pioneer William Terry Couch, who was Director of the UNC Press from 1932-45 and also served as Southern Regional Director of the Federal Writer's Project (FWP).

"At least as far back as the thirties, and certainly continuing into the early fifties, there was a very strong notion throughout the region that Chapel Hill is this liberal island...but from my point of view, if that were so, it's difficult to understand how there was such a violent reaction to the Freedom Riders in 1947. That incident in Chapel Hill was the most violent incident of their journey...and then the nature of resistance to integration in Chapel Hill took some rather violent forms."

- Joe, conversation with Rev. Charles M. Jones during oral history interview, Nov. 8, 1976

Historian John Herbert Roper cites an interview he and Joe jointly conducted with North Carolina icon Paul Green in the notes for his 2003 biography, Paul Green: Playwright of the Real South, but the interview is not cataloged along with other oral histories archived in the Southern Historical Collection.

- Erik Ose

Sunday, November 4, 2007

We'll not see his like again

Dave Hart, Chapel Hill News, Nov. 4, 2007 - Editorial

We lost one of the very best of us when Joe Herzenberg passed away last week.

Joe and Chapel Hill were so much a part of each other that it's difficult to imagine the town without him. Not least because, if not for him, Chapel Hill wouldn't be the Chapel Hill we know.

He changed this place, not only through his remarkable political career, but through his vast store of knowledge, his garrulous personality, and his ubiquitous presence. He fully deserved his unofficial title, mayor of Franklin Street, and his unwavering commitment to the fundamental but all too frequently forgotten proposition that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated that way, with justice and compassion.

His groundbreaking political career is well known around here. He participated in the Freedom Summer voter registration efforts in Mississippi in 1963 and came here in the early 1970s to go to graduate school. He immediately immersed himself in local and state politics, culture and history, and when he was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1987 he became the first openly gay elected official in the state, and probably in the South. He opened the door for others to follow. He was a champion not only of gay rights, but of civil rights in general, social justice, environmental protection and other issues.

In a town with a long history of activism, he's right up there at the top. He managed somehow to be at once a giant of a man and just Joe.

And when many of us think of him, we don't think of him speechifying or voting at the council table. We think of him where we so often saw him, on the Franklin Street he loved and knew so well, wearing his trademark floppy hat, talking to everyone.

Matt Stiegler, Joe, and Fred Young at Joe's Stonewall party, 2004.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Obituary - Joseph A. Herzenberg

The Carrboro Citizen, Nov. 1, 2007

Joe Herzenberg — the first openly gay elected official in the American South, an ardent defender of civil rights and the environment, and the unofficial Mayor of Franklin Street — died on October 28, 2007 at UNC Hospital. He was 66 years old.

Joe 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 participate in voter registration for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically-black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. A very popular instructor, Joe was named an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. During this time, Joe was briefly married.

Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in the early 1970s to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, immediately immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for Chapel Hill town council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the council that year to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the council, becoming the South’s first openly gay elected official. He was re-elected in 1991 with the highest vote tally in the four seat race (and, up to that time, the highest vote total ever in a Town Council race), and served until 1993. As a council member, Joe was responsible for creation of the Chapel Hill greenway system and enactment of the town’s tree protection ordinance.

Joe remained active in civic and political activities. He was a founding board member of Pride PAC, a statewide lesbian and gay political action committee now known as Equality NC. He also served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Fund for Southern Communities. He served as chair of the local greenways commission, the tree commission, and the libraries bond task force, and served on several other local boards. Joe also organized Chapel Hill’s annual Bill of Rights Day celebration.

Throughout his time in Chapel Hill, Joe was an ardent Democratic Party supporter, serving as longtime chair of his precinct. His party activism brought him brief notoriety in 1984, when Senator Jesse Helms angrily raged at his opponent Jim Hunt during a live televised debate “You’re supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown!” – a moment that Joe was forever after proud of. Joe received a Citizen’s Award from the Independent newsweekly in 1984, the first year that award was given.

Joe was an enthusiastic traveler who visited all seven continents and all 50 states. He also loved art and music. He was a member of Chapel Hill Kehillah.

Joe is survived by his brother Bobby, his sister-in-law Debbie, his nephew Michael, and his niece Sarah. He was pre-deceased by his brother David.

In lieu of flowers, well-wishers are asked to make contributions in his name to Equality NC,, or the Inter-faith Council for Social Services,

Joe visiting the Netherlands, 1998.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Joe Herzenberg, 1941-2007

Jennifer Strom, Independent Weekly, Oct. 31, 2007

Joe Herzenberg had a big voice.

Booming across the sidewalk on Franklin Street or over the phone line, he could get your attention with a bit of political news, a funny story, a short lesson in local history. And he was always good for a little gossip.

He didn't hold a conventional job for most of his adulthood, but he chose a giant task for his life's work: to use his voice to fight against injustice and bigotry and fight for civil rights, both in his hometown of Chapel Hill and nationally.

In 1964, he joined the voter-registration drives for African Americans in rural Mississippi—a potentially life-threatening decision for a white, homosexual, liberal, Jewish Yankee back then.

In 1984, he landed squarely in the sights of Jesse Helms' hate machine, when his participation in Jim Hunt's U.S. Senate campaign generated harassment and threats from many sources, including a Chatham County newspaperman who made it his mission to attack Herzenberg and his partner, Lightning Brown.

Closer to home, he became North Carolina's—and some say, the South's—first openly gay elected official. He was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1981 and then won a seat in 1987. He was re-elected in 1991 but stepped down after pleading guilty to failing to pay his state income taxes—a mistake he took responsibility for and overcame, playing a prominent part in local grassroots politics in the years since.

Along the way, Herzenberg shared his voluminous knowledge and razor-sharp insight with anyone who'd take the time to listen. He became a mentor and role model for a new generation of local, young progressive leaders, both gay and straight.

Over nearly four decades in Chapel Hill, he stayed involved in all the good fights (and started a few of his own): advocating for non-discrimination policies that covered sexual orientation, defending the privacy rights of public-housing tenants, opposing anti-panhandling laws, helping draft the state's first tree protections, pushing for creation of municipal greenways and a historic preservation district.

Through it all, Herzenberg maintained a Southern gentility that belied his New Jersey roots. He was a master at the art of the postcard, penning little notes of encouragement or thanks and signing them with a trademark flourish whenever the occasion called for it—which was often.
He knew everyone on Franklin Street, not just at businesses like his beloved Pepper's Pizza, but also the folks for whom the street was home.

In a few weeks, we will publish our annual Indy Citizen Awards, a tradition born, like the paper, in 1983. Every November, we honor individuals and groups around the Triangle whose "acts of conscience and sacrifice" make our community better. In 1984, we recognized Joe Herzenberg for speaking out against "political terrorism." Twenty-three years later, we mourn the silencing of his powerful voice.

Death of a Political Hero – Joe Herzenberg

The Latest Outrage, Oct. 31, 2007

Joe Herzenberg, 1989

With the death of Joe Herzenberg on Oct. 28, Chapel Hill has lost a true political hero, and one of its most caring, kind, and generous lights.

His victory in 1987 as the first openly gay man elected to public office in the South inspired countless future leaders. He championed progressive causes throughout his life, starting with his civil rights work in Mississippi during the 1960’s. Joe went to Mississippi as a Freedom Summer volunteer in 1964, and worked to register black voters who had been denied their democratic rights.

“Participating in the Freedom Summer was not a casual decision…gay Jewish Yankees from Yale were being murdered by the cops in Mississippi,” said Mark Chilton, one of Joe’s political protégés and the current mayor of Carrboro. "I remember him telling me about how the local county boards of election would refuse to let them have copies of the voter registration rolls." The volunteers sat in the election board offices and copied the voter registration lists by hand.

In 1969, Joe came to Chapel Hill as a graduate student and soon began working to elect progressives in North Carolina. Joe helped register thousands of students in Chapel Hill to vote for the 1972 elections. He served as campaign manager for Gerry Cohen, who in 1973 became the first graduate student to win a seat on the town’s Board of Aldermen.

And then Joe was defeated in his first campaign for a Board seat in 1979. Later that year, Joe was appointed to fill Cohen’s unexpired term as Alderman, when Cohen stepped down to run for Mayor. He would lose his race for re-election in 1981, the same year his partner, Lightning Brown, also ran unsuccessfully for the Board. Joe lost another bid in 1985, but he wouldn't give up. He finally returned to the (re-named) Town Council through his victorious campaign in 1987.

“Not many among us could have summoned the energy — the courage, really — for a fourth run at the town council,” said Matt Stiegler, attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “Joe did.”

Joe on North Street in Chapel Hill, 1991

Seeking public office as a gay man in the South, at the time, was a very courageous act. Less than a year before Joe's first campaign, on November 27, 1978, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was assassinated in City Hall after only 11 months in office. Harvey Milk was a hero to Joe Herzenberg, and in turn, Joe became one to a new generation of progressive activists and politicians in North Carolina – gay, lesbian, and straight.

Mark Kleinschmidt, director of the Fair Trial Initiative and a current member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, credits Joe as his inspiration for entering politics.

"I just got off the phone with a friend in California," said Kleinschmidt. "My friend and I both arrived in Chapel Hill as UNC freshmen almost 20 years ago. Both of us had grown up in small North Carolina towns. Upon arrival, we learned about a man who just a year earlier had dared to honestly present himself to his community as an openly gay man and at the same time ask this same community to elect him to office. No one had successfully attempted such an audacious political act. During our conversation, my friend and I both confessed that it was the moment we heard about this guy that we knew we had found our 'home town.'"

“His election twenty years ago…changed the South,” said Mike Nelson, Orange County Commissioner and former mayor of Carrboro, who was Joe’s campaign manager in 1987 and the first openly gay mayor in N.C. “That election began a slow march, a journey, that led to Carrboro becoming the first municipality in the South to adopt domestic partnership benefits, to the governor appointing John Arrowood to the NC Court of Appeals, and to Jim Neal becoming the first openly gay man to run for U.S. Senate in North Carolina.”

I think I first met Joe in 1990 as a UNC undergrad. We shared mutual interests in Democratic politics, the local political scene, and of course, voter registration. Joe was thrilled at the idea of trying to re-awaken the sleeping student vote in Chapel Hill. He encouraged me at every turn to make it happen. With his help, we registered over 15,000 students to vote on campus during the early to mid-90’s, plus 10,000 more statewide.

We also bonded over my home state of Rhode Island. Joe spent part of almost every summer vacationing with his family on Block Island, a beautiful, unspoiled little island off the coast of Southern RI that he loved.

Like many who knew him, I have a small collection of postcards that Joe sent me over the years. His handwritten gestures followed me wherever I moved.

Joe befriended and mentored young people in this town. It was a part of who he was, like his thoughtful postcards. And he kept up his interest even after most of us graduated and drifted away from Chapel Hill.

He didn’t like e-mail or computers. Dubbed the "Mayor of Franklin Street," Joe liked walking around town and talking to people. He was old fashioned and very human.

Joe made me aware of the example set by civil rights activist Allard Lowenstein, a kindred spirit who, like Joe, had a flair for inspiring the young, worked tirelessly for progressive causes, and shared Chapel Hill ties. Both Joe and Allard Lowenstein are near the top of my list of all time heroes, and I think it’s fitting that one introduced me to the other.

When Joe believed in something, he put his energy, resources, and spirit behind it. And it was infectious. His enthusiasm and sense of the possible about doing good in local politics got me and plenty of others involved.

In 1992, Joe was a founding board member of Pride PAC, a statewide lesbian and gay political action committee now named Equality NC. Its work has helped elect a string of out and gay-friendly officials in North Carolina, including State Senator Julia Boseman, the state’s first openly lesbian legislator.

Joe found himself targeted by Jesse Helms’ hatemongering when he and his partner vocally campaigned for Gov. Jim Hunt against Helms during their hard fought 1984 Senate race. In one memorable televised debate, Helms gay-baited Hunt by thundering, “You’re supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown!”

Posing as reporters for the black and gay press, right-wing Helms fanatics made and taped phone calls to gay activists around the country who were backing Hunt. Articles based on distorted excerpts from the phone calls were then published in issues of The Landmark, a conservative Chatham County newspaper.

Headlines screaming “Jim Hunt Is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate," and asking, “Is Jim Hunt homosexual?...Is he AC and DC?” appeared throughout 1984 in The Landmark. Funded by shadowy Helms backers, hundreds of thousands of free copies of the paper were distributed around the state, particularly in rural areas.

Joe and Lightning were the smear campaign’s N.C. poster children. According to Lightning, one caller "asked about my fund raising for Hunt. The details ended up in The Landmark right away - it was frightening." Joe and Lightning each received one of the Independent Weekly’s first Citizen Awards that year, for speaking out against “political terrorism.”

"I think gay political people elsewhere in the country think we are so brave down here having to deal with Jesse Helms," Herzenberg said. "But I've never met Jesse Helms. He doesn't live in my town. Really, life isn't so difficult here in North Carolina."

- Joe, characteristically modest, as quoted in the Chapel Hill News, April 12, 2002.

Joe in Chapel Hill, 1991

Joe crusaded to elect Democratic candidates to office, from the local to national level. He personally provided crucial early financial, organizational, and moral support for countless progressive campaigns in N.C.

One prominent example was when Joe backed former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt for the Democratic Senate nomination in 1990. At the time, the party establishment was lined up behind Mike Easley, then a little known Eastern N.C. prosecutor. Easley’s chief qualification among party insiders for taking on Jesse Helms seemed to be that unlike Gantt, his platform was more middle of the road than inspiring, and he wasn’t black.

And in 1998, Joe was a very early backer of John Edwards’ populist, outsider Senate campaign, despite the overwhelming support by Chapel Hill political elites for UNC Vice President D.G. Martin.

“In primaries, always vote your heart. You will have plenty of time to vote your head in the general election.”

- political advice from Joe in the 1980's, as remembered by Mark Donahue

The list of local, progressive elected officials whose campaigns Joe helped or mentored is lengthy, but some notable ones are Mike Nelson, current Orange County commissioner and former mayor of Carrboro; Ellie Kinnaird, also a former mayor of Carrboro and current N.C. State Senator; Mark Chilton, current mayor of Carrboro, and the first undergraduate student ever elected to a town council seat in Chapel Hill; and current Chapel Hill Town Council members Mark Kleinschmidt and Sally Greene.

Before coming to North Carolina, Joe served as chair of the history department at Tougaloo College, a historically black college in Mississippi.

Nov. 15, 2007 resolution honoring Joe issued by Tougaloo College

He was keenly aware of how history shapes the present day, and fought to have the town of Chapel Hill do more to recognize the contributions made by some of its overlooked citizens.

Joe urged us to remember people like Samuel Phillips, one of the state's leading Radical Republicans, who prosecuted the KKK as a federal attorney during Reconstruction and was appointed Solicitor General by President Grant.

And John Dunne, Patrick Cusick, and Quinton Baker, leaders of the local civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Their story is told in John Ehle’s long out of print book The Free Men, recently reissued in paperback, which documents the gripping events of this turbulent, too-often glossed over chapter in Chapel Hill’s past.

"At some point in the future ... there ought to be some official town notice of the three main leaders of the civil rights leaders in Chapel Hill: John Dunne, Pat Cusick and Quinton Baker. They did back in 1963 and 1964 what very few citizens of our town were willing to do, unfortunately, which was to stand up for what was right," he said. "They deserve some acknowledgment."

- Joe speaking before the Chapel Hill Town Council, as quoted in the Chapel Hill News, March 29, 2006

Looking back on the conversations we had, I think about all the places around town I remember talking or having lunch with him. I loved talking with Joe. Besides his always perceptive take and inside dope on the latest political news, he was full of personal stories - about his adventures growing up in Franklin, New Jersey (where his father owned the local drug store), living and working in Mississippi during the 60’s, and what Chapel Hill was like in the 70’s and 80’s. He was our resident wise man.

"It is very important, when running a government, to know what happened the day before yesterday or the year before last."

- Joe on Nov. 4, 1991, the day before he was re-elected to office with the highest vote total of any Chapel Hill Town Council member

Herzenberg family drug store, Franklin NJ, 1950's

I’ve been numb ever since I first heard the news yesterday morning. The last time I saw and spoke with Joe was at the grocery store. We talked for a while, first walking the aisles, then I followed him outside and said goodbye when his faithful friend and caregiver Kathie Young pulled the car around. I realized from what he told me how close he’d come to death about a year ago. But he looked much better.

I regret not seeing more of Joe over these past couple of years. I’m mad that he’s left us too early. I’m sorry he got so sick, but I remember him full of life and laughter. I’ll miss him. He devoted his life to standing up for equality and justice, and everyone who believes in these ideals will miss Joe, too.

Memorial shrine to Joe at Margaret's Cantina in Chapel Hill, November 2007. Photo by Ruby Sinreich.

Excerpts from this post have also appeared in the Carrboro Citizen and Chapel Hill News.

Joe Herzenberg, former council member, dies at 66

Chapel Hill News, Oct. 31, 2007

By Samuel Spies, Staff Writer

CHAPEL HILL -- Sitting in a county board of elections office in Mississippi in 1964, Joe Herzenberg got an early taste of grass-roots political activism.

"I remember him telling me about how the local county boards of election would refuse to let them have copies of the voter registration rolls," said Mark Chilton, mayor of Carrboro and a longtime friend.

So the volunteers for Freedom Summer, a voter-registration effort, sat and copied the lists.

"Joe was one of the scriveners, if you will, for that project," Chilton said. Herzenberg also walked through neighborhoods and encouraged people to register to vote. "He was a white gay Jewish Yankee who went to Mississippi to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer."

Herzenberg died Sunday. He was 66.

The first openly gay elected official in North Carolina, and some say in the South, he left an indelible mark on Chapel Hill and its politics, and mentored a generation of local politicians and activists.

"He's part of the reason that Chapel Hill became my hometown," said Mark Kleinschmidt, a Town Council member. "You look around this community, you just see his fingerprints on everything that makes this community such a nice place to live."

Herzenberg had been ill for several years, friend Kathie Young said. He died at UNC Hospitals of complications from diabetes, surrounded by friends and his rabbi.

Young and others remember his insightful intellect and warm sense of humor. "We spent our life together being a family in an untraditional sense of the word," Young said. "He could be so cranky, such a curmudgeon, but the relationship we had was nothing but love."

Commonly seen at Pepper's Pizza, Herzenberg loved food and literature, often giving friends books from his extensive library. His favorite meal was Sunday brunch at Crook's Corner, lawyer Matt Stiegler said. Several of Herzenberg's friends gathered there Sunday to celebrate his life.

"There was a lot about Joe that was quirky. That I know of, he never owned a car," Stiegler said. "He sort of personally resented the idea of ever having to leave Chapel Hill."

Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941. His father owned a drugstore in Franklin, N.J., where Herzenberg grew up, according to an obituary prepared by his friends.

While a college student at Yale, he made the civil rights trip.

"He didn't move to New York and make a lot of money and complain with his friends over cocktails about the plight of poor people in the South," Kleinschmidt said. "... He was an activist in the real sense of the word: He was active."

Herzenberg moved to Chapel Hill to continue his studies. He first ran for Town Council in 1979, and though unsuccessful was appointed to fill a vacancy until 1981, his friends said. He campaigned persistently for election, finally winning in 1987.

"Joe was a historian. He more than any of us was aware that his election was of historic significance, but that it was not the beginning of a revolution, not the end, but one small piece of a larger journey," said Mike Nelson, an Orange County commissioner who also is gay. "Really what it did for the rest of us was give us hope."

Kleinschmidt called Herzenberg a personal hero to him as a young gay man thinking of entering politics. "Because of the legacy that he has left, I am fortunate enough to have a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council," he said.

Herzenberg's career as an elected official ended in 1993 after a tax scandal. Though he remained on the council for about a year after pleading guilty to not paying state taxes, colleagues asked him to resign. Faced with the threat of a recall election, he did so.

"He was disappointed and embarrassed. But he didn't let [it] get him down, and he didn't stop being involved in his community," Nelson said. "I think that's a great tribute to him, that he kept going."

Friends said Herzenberg's legacy includes not only work on lesbian and gay issues, but also for racial justice, affordable housing and the environment.

Herzenberg is survived by a brother, Bob Herzenberg. He will be cremated and his ashes buried in New Jersey, Young said.

Kathie Young & Joe, New Year’s Eve, 1978.

Requiem for an original

Ruth Sheehan, The News & Observer, Raleigh NC, Oct. 31, 2007

In a spiffed-up, buttoned-down Chapel Hill some UNC graduates would hardly recognize, Joe Herzenberg was a touchstone.

He earned a footnote in history as a Chapel Hill council member -- the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina and in the South.

But for true Chapel Hillians, he symbolized what the town was really about: a place where a Jewish boy from New Jersey, a civil rights crusader, could make a life and never feel the need to leave.

In fact, he seldom did.

Once a year, he went to Rhode Island. But he told me he was always glad to get home, to get back to Franklin Street.

He spent part of every day, in his big floppy hat, walking Chapel Hill's main drag, stopping to chat, waving at passers-by as if he were in a parade.

If it's possible to be a moving fixture, he was it.

Before I knew Herzenberg well, I would stop occasionally to offer him a ride, remembering that he didn't own a car. He always politely declined. I realized later that he was connecting with his public.

When I was hired by The News & Observer to cover Orange County, Herzenberg was my ace in the hole.

If I needed the background on a thorny issue (albeit with that lefty Herzenberg spin), I would call. If I needed sources, he would suggest some. If I needed help to sort through the baloney, he would oblige.

Sometimes I would call Herzenberg before 9 a.m. (he was not an early riser) just to get his answering machine.

The message, in his loud, quirky voice, made me smile:

"Leave messages for Joe Herzenberg, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Orange County Democratic Party, the so-and-so for such-and-such office campaign ... and Harriet Levy."

Harriet was his cat.

He always called back. And he always had something interesting to say.

An historian who never completed his dissertation, he read voraciously and kept up with the news, official and otherwise.

Fifteen years before we learned about foot-tapping in a Minneapolis airport restroom, he urged me to write a book about closeted Republicans.

He had a starter list.

Herzenberg had friends of all ages, from the kids at Pepper's Pizza to the most esteemed Carolina deans. That's how he stayed so plugged in.

If it was happening in Chapel Hill, he knew about it, and he had an opinion about it.

That was my first clue something was wrong when I called him last week to hear his thoughts on Senate candidate Jim Neal, a Chapel Hill financier who is gay.

Herzenberg told me he didn't know anything about Neal.

I hadn't realized Herzenberg had been sick. I wrote him a letter the next day. It was still sitting on my desk when I got news of his death.

In recent years, Herzenberg and I had exchanged cards at the holidays, but little more.

When my sons were born, he surprised me by sending beautiful hardcover versions of such childhood favorites as "Harold and the Purple Crayon" and "The Little Engine That Could."

That they are dog-eared now would make him happy, I think.

They were classics.

He was an original.

He will be sorely missed.

Joe and Kathie Young on Halloween, 2005.

The town loses a unique presence

Chapel Hill Herald, Oct. 31, 2007 - Editorial

Everyone knew Joe. Joe knew everyone.

If ever there was a man about town, particularly downtown, Joe Herzenberg was the guy. He lived downtown and, it seemed that every day, he walked through it. He'd chat with the flower ladies, stop at Pepper's Pizza, grab a hamburger at Crook's Corner, talk to everyone as he made his way down Franklin Street.

Herzenberg, who died over the weekend at the age of 66, was in some ways the antithesis of the average Chapel Hillian, whatever that may be.

He was intentionally car-less and walked everywhere. His everyday costume was a combination of New York hipster and backwoods farmer. In the land of the svelte and athletic, he was anything but.

But no one loved Chapel Hill more than he did, no one cared about Chapel Hill and its future more than Joe Herzenberg cared.

Herzenberg will be recalled for being the first openly gay official in the state and one of the first anywhere, during a time when being gay was less accepted than it is now. He will probably most be remembered for his diligent service on the Chapel Hill Town Council beginning in the late 1980s and for how that service ended, as he was forced to resign when it became public that he had not paid his state income taxes for several years.

But the scandal and his resignation did not diminish his love for his adopted hometown or his involvement in our civic affairs. Rather than hide in the corner, he admitted his indiscretions, apologized for them, and stayed involved in our affairs. He served on local boards and mentored young politicians. He continued to work for civil rights and for peace and justice. He continued to be, particularly on Franklin Street, a presence.

A few years ago the Town Council created a committee to study the then-contentious idea of renaming Airport Road for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It appointed officials to the committee as well as Airport Road residents and members of the local branch of the NAACP. It also named to the committee Joe Herzenberg, as a "citizen-at-large."

Yes, indeed.

North Carolina's First Gay Elected Official Dies

The Advocate, Los Angeles CA, Oct. 31, 2007

Joe Herzenberg, a longtime activist and the first openly gay elected official in North Carolina, died Sunday. He was 66. Herzenberg had been ill for several years, his friend Kathie Young told The [Raleigh] News & Observer. He died at the University of North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill of complications from diabetes.

Herzenberg moved to Chapel Hill after graduating from Yale in the 1970s. He unsuccessfully ran for town council in 1979 but was appointed to a vacancy through 1981. He kept campaigning until he won in 1987.

Mark Kleinschmidt, a current town council member, told The News & Observer that when he was a young gay man eyeing the political arena, he considered Herzenberg his personal hero. "He's part of the reason that Chapel Hill became my hometown," he said. "You look around this community, you just see his fingerprints on everything that makes this community such a nice place to live."

Herzenberg left the town council in 1993 after neglecting to pay state taxes, a charge for which he pleaded guilty.

Herzenberg is survived by a brother, Bob Herzenberg. He will be cremated, and his ashes will be buried in New Jersey, Young said.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

N.C.'s first openly gay elected official dies: Joe Herzenberg was 66

Washington Blade, D.C., Oct. 30, 2007

North Carolina's first openly gay elected official has died. Joe Herzenberg of Chapel Hill died Sunday at the age of 66.

Friends say Herzenberg first ran for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 and was appointed to a position there two years later. He finally won an election to the position in 1987.

Mark Kleinschmidt is a Chapel Hill Town Council member who is also gay. He says Herzenberg is a personal hero whose legacy helped other gays enter and succeed in politics.

Joe in 2000, as featured in Out and Elected in the U.S.A. photo exhibit

Herzenberg inspires others: First openly gay official led way

The Daily Tar Heel, Oct. 30, 2007

By: Max Rose, Staff Writer

When openly gay politician Ernie Fleming ran for Warren County commissioner last year, the local newspaper ran an editorial that warned of a "moral tsunami."

But that did not prevent Fleming from being elected.

For years, Joe Herzenberg was the only openly gay elected official in North Carolina, but after his Sunday death, many still follow the road he paved.

"(Herzenberg) pried that door open and kept that open by himself in order to keep alive the promise of full participation," Chapel Hill Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt said. "He made it possible to get enough people that it's never going to close again."

In 1987 Herzenberg became the first openly gay elected official in the Carolinas, said Denis Dison, spokesman for Victory Fund, a national organization that helps get gay and lesbian candidates elected.

Now there are at least six gay elected officials in the state, including Kleinschmidt and Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson.

Herzenberg died Sunday in Chapel Hill at age 66, but his impact extends beyond the town's borders.

Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, was the first openly gay state senator in North Carolina, and openly gay people also have been elected in and Cabarrus County and Boone.

"We've seen people getting elected in areas that are not liberal bastions, and I think that's an indication that voters are willing to look beyond a voter's sexual orientation," said Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina.

Two gay candidates are running in 2008 for statewide office in North Carolina. Jim Neal is a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and John Arrowood is running for the Court of Appeals.

"Joe Herzenberg was an inspiration to everyone who is interested in making our society a better place to live," Neal stated in an e-mail. "He was one of those leaders who broke down barriers."

But openly gay candidates sometimes still have difficulty getting voters to look past sexual orientation.

Dison said 25 percent to 30 percent of voters will not vote for an openly gay candidate, according to a Victory Fund national survey.

"There are still a lot of people who will immediately discount you when they learn of your sexual orientation," Dison said. "The people you see who do get elected typically run perfect campaigns."

Still, the number of openly gay leaders continues to increase. Victory Fund is endorsing 71 gay candidates in 2007, including Carrboro alderman candidate Lydia Lavelle.

Lavelle received financial support from Herzenberg for her campaign.

Her partner, Alicia Stemper, said sexual orientation has not been an issue in the alderman race.

"That she is able to mention that she has a partner and raising children without worrying that it will pull the campaign off message is such a luxury," Stemper said.

Dison said that while some gay officials, work actively for equal rights, others show their colleagues that they are not the stereotype.

"Being out is perhaps the most powerful statement that anyone can make because it forces people to look at you for who you are," he said. "It changes hearts and minds."

Herzenberg encouraged Kleinschmidt to run for town council, and it became a ritual for interested candidates to speak to Herzenberg before filing.

"He is a model which I try to emulate," Kleinschmidt said. "I think that's true for most every politician in Chapel Hill, straight or gay."

Joe & Bill Strom at Joe's Stonewall party, 2004.

Local leaves personal and political mark

The Daily Tar Heel, Oct. 30, 2007

By: Sara Gregory, Assistant City Editor

Joe Herzenberg sent his friends hundreds of postcards.

The longtime Chapel Hill resident sent the notes from his home and his travels: a photo on one side and on the back, a few funny observations or words of support.

"He's the only person who sent me postcards," said Chapel Hill Town Council member Mark Kleinschmidt, a friend of Herzenberg's. "He would sometimes send postcards with just a simple thought or idea to remind us what was important. It was just this charming way of conveying a message."

Friends said Monday they will miss Herzenberg and his postcards. The civil rights activist and the first openly gay elected official in the Carolinas died about 6 p.m. Sunday at UNC Hospitals. He was 66 years old.

Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris and Margaret Herzenberg, and grew up in New Jersey.

He received a bachelor's degree from Yale University in 1963. After graduating, Herzenberg was one of the nearly 1,000 student volunteers who went to Mississippi to register black voters during Freedom Summer in 1964.

Herzenberg then joined the faculty of Tougaloo College, an historically black university, where he served as chairman of the history department. The Delta Sigma Theta sorority named him an honorary member while he taught at Tougaloo.

"He had fond memories of teaching there," Kleinschmidt said. "He thought of that as one of his great achievements in his life."

Herzenberg came to Chapel Hill as a graduate student in history at UNC.

In 1979, he led his first campaign for Chapel Hill Town Council and lost. Herzenberg was appointed to the seat vacated mid-term by Gerry Cohen, but failed to win re-election in 1981. He lost a third attempt for the council in 1983.

Friends said they will remember his determination to fight for progressive issues.

"He really set the bar for infusing our public policy decisions with progressive values and his commitment to civil rights and fairness and equality," Kleinschmidt said. "He found a role for those decisions in all that the town does."

Orange County Commissioner Mike Nelson managed Herzenberg's first successful attempt in 1987.

Nelson, who was the first openly gay elected Mayor of Carrboro before serving on the board of commissioners, was a student when he campaigned with Herzenberg.

Nelson met Herzenberg in 1983 at the Henderson Street Bar and said it was exciting to be involved with the successful campaign.

"Joe and our volunteers knocked on virtually every door in Chapel Hill," Nelson said. "We put together an extraordinary grassroots effort."

On the council, Herzenberg was responsible for the creation of the town's greenway system and the enactment of the tree protection ordinance.

"You look around Chapel Hill and you see his fingerprints on anything that's worth anything here," Kleinschmidt said.

He also was a mentor to many UNC students who later went on to elected offices in Orange County. Kleinschmidt, Nelson and Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton were supported by Herzenberg when they ran for office.

"I remember how excited he was whenever I told him I wanted to pursue getting a seat on the council," Kleinschmidt said. "He taught me not just how to fight for the things I cared about, but also how to be effective with the people I was serving."

Chilton was a student when he first ran for a spot on the Chapel Hill Town Council. He and Herzenberg both ran in 1991, and Chilton said Herzenberg became a key adviser.

"Joe was a real important figure in Chapel Hill politics," Chilton said. "It seemed kind of strange, kind of unusual having someone like that supporting me."

Chilton said he learned a lot working with Herzenberg after they both were elected - Herzenberg with the highest vote total ever in a council race up to that time.

"Joe was somebody who was not afraid to stand up for the things that he believed in even if his point of view might be unpopular," Chilton said. "Joe and I were at the losing end of a couple of votes together over the years."

The two were the sole dissenting votes when the council decided to establish new policies allowing public housing apartments to be searched for drugs.

"We were quite vilified for that," Chilton said, who keeps a copy of an editorial cartoon that shows the two being burned at the stake together.

Herzenberg resigned from the council in 1993, but continued to remain active in Chapel Hill, serving on several town boards, including the committee that worked to rename Airport Road in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

He was a longtime Democratic Party supporter, and served as a precinct captain for many years. On Election Days, Herzenberg would go around in the afternoon to convince people to vote.

"He and others would go knocking on doors and all but drag them to the polls," Kleinschmidt said. "He didn't care if they were going to vote for him or not. At the end of the day, he appreciated people participating whether they agreed with him or not."

The upcoming municipal elections mark the 20th anniversary of Herzenberg's election. Equality NC, which Herzenberg helped found, planned to honor him at its Equality Conference and Gala Saturday.

Nelson now will share a personal remembrance during the gala.

Herzenberg is survived by his brother Bobby; his sister-in-law, Debbie; his nephew, Michael; and his niece, Sarah. He was preceded in death by his brother David.

A memorial service is being planned and likely will occur in the coming weeks. Friends and family have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Interfaith Alliance or Equality NC PAC.

Herzenberg's friends have taken to calling him an unofficial mayor of Franklin Street, recognizing the time he spent downtown meeting new and old friends.

And, in typical fashion, Chilton said Herzenberg reached out to everyone downtown.

"It wasn't just all the business owners and patrons he was friends with," Chilton said. "Joe knew all of the panhandlers by name. He really knew everyone."

Ex-Town Council member dies at 66: Joe Herzenberg served Chapel Hill from 1987 to 1993

Chapel Hill Herald, Oct. 30, 2007


CHAPEL HILL -- Joe Herzenberg, one the first openly gay elected officials in the state, a political mentor to many and a former Town Council member, died Sunday at UNC Hospitals.

He was 66 years old.

Mr. Herzenberg had been suffering from serious health problems related to diabetes for about a decade and was hospitalized in a coma about a year ago. He recovered from the coma and seemed to be doing better when he had a downturn several weeks ago and was hospitalized again.

His friends held a vigil at his hospital bed during his last days, and some of them were with him when he died.

Mr. Herzenberg's time on the Chapel Hill Town Council from 1987 to 1993 was filled with highs and lows. His friends and supporters said he led conservation efforts, worked to preserve the historic district of Chapel Hill, built the greenway system, was instrumental in developing the tree ordinance and always fought for the civil rights and civil liberties for all people.

Yet he resigned from the Town Council in 1993 when it became known that he had not filed his state tax returns from 1978 to 1992 or his intangible tax returns from 1986 to 1992. He resigned as election workers were close to validating a recall petition.

Mark Kleinschmidt, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, was with Mr. Herzenberg and friends at the hospital several hours before he died on Sunday evening. "Yesterday we were all gathering. The Rabbi had come and gone through the end of life process for him, and we made a schedule when each person would come to be with him," Kleinschmidt said.

Kleinschmidt went home and was scheduled to return later that night when he got a call about 6:15 p.m. Kleinschmidt rushed back to the hospital. "He was gone," he said.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, the youngest person to be elected to office in North Carolina, served on the Chapel Hill Town Council with Mr. Herzenberg and also was with him during his last hours.

Chilton, a student at UNC at the time, met Mr. Herzenberg as they both were running for two open seats on the Chapel Hill board. "I think Joe might have been the only person besides me that thought I could win in 1991," Chilton said. "He was somebody who really believed in me and helped give me a chance.

"When we both won in 1991, him by a landslide and me by a fingernail, we worked very closely on the Town Council," Chilton said. "I learned a lot about how to do things from Joe."

Mr. Herzenberg lived on Cobb Terrace for many years and walked downtown often, sometimes sitting in front of Pepper's Pizza, speaking to the many people he knew as they walked by. "He did cut an unusual profile," Chilton said with a laugh. "He was very recognizable, and he was always on foot."

Mr. Herzenberg knew not only the store owners by name, but also the employees and the homeless people and panhandlers who hung out downtown, Chilton said.

Kleinschmidt also was a student at UNC when he first met Mr. Herzenberg, he said. "Like many young people who are now involved in local issues, he was a very important part of helping me develop," Kleinschmidt said. "He was always so much more than a friend. He was my mentor. He was my teacher."

Although Mr. Herzenberg lived in Chapel Hill and served on the Town Council there, he was very influential in Carrboro politics as well, said Carrboro Alderman Jacquelyn Gist. "If anybody doubts Joe's influence in Carrboro, our last three mayors were mentored by him, Ellie Kinnaird, Mike Nelson and Mark Chilton," Gist said.

Staff writer Ginny Hoyle contributed to this report.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Chapel Hill political leader and mentor dies at age 66

The Daily Tar Heel, City Briefs, Oct. 29, 2007

Local activist Joe Herzenberg passed away at about 6 p.m. Sunday at UNC Hospitals.

In 1987, Herzenberg was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council, becoming North Carolina's first openly gay elected official and the first in the south.

Mark Kleinschmidt, an openly-gay Chapel Hill town council member, along with several other local leaders, say they owe their political career to Herzenberg.

Kleinschmidt calls Herzenberg his hero."Joe's one of the most special people in the world to me," Kleinschmidt said. "He was a mentor - not just in politics."

The Equality NC Foundation will honor Joe Herzenberg at the Equality Conference & Gala on Saturday in celebration of the 20th anniversary of his 1987 election. He served on the Chapel Hill Town Council from 1987 to 1993.

He was also a founder of Equality NC PAC, then NC Pride PAC, and served on that board for more than a decade. Since his 1987 election, Herzenberg served the town on several advisory boards.

"You look around the community and see the things that make it a wonderful place to live - you see Joe in all of it," Kleinschmidt said. "Whether that's social politics, our greenways, our libraries, our downtown. Those things were hugely important to them.

"Making sure Chapel Hill was a wonderful place to live and work was something he committed his life to."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Joe Herzenberg dies

The Carrboro Citizen, Oct. 28, 2007, 3:15 pm

Joe Herzenberg, longtime Chapel Hill Town Council member, Democratic Party stalwart, Greenways champion and an astute historian of local politics died today from complications of diabetes.

He left this world, we are told, surrounded by friends. Details of memorials to follow.

Update: Thread on OP: We’ll Miss You Joe

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Video footage of Joe Herzenberg in his element, speaking before the Chapel Hill Town Council

Chapel Hill Town Council Meeting, June 27, 2007

In June, 2007, Joe appeared before the Chapel Hill Town Council to alert the town to the paperback reissue of The Free Men, John Ehle's landmark history of Chapel Hill's desegregation protests during 1963-64. Joe praised the book as "one of the best ever written about the civil rights movement in any town."

The Free Men was originally published in 1965, but had been out of print for many years. He urged members of the council and the entire community to read the book and remember the town's history, even though it was "not a very happy story...almost nobody in Chapel Hill, except students, primarily black students, did what they ought to have done."

According to Kevin Watson, co-owner of Press 53, the Winston-Salem based publisher that reissued the book, Joe "bought the first copy of the reissued version of The Free Men. He bought eight, in fact."


SUMMARY MINUTES: Joe Herzenberg mentioned a book titled "The Free Men," written by John Ehle, which is about the civil rights movement. He described it as the best book ever written about Chapel Hill and gave a copy to Mayor Foy. Mr. Herzenberg encouraged Council members to read it.