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.