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