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.