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.