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

About Joe

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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.

Tuesday, February 13, 1996

Brown community activist until death came Monday

Chapel Hill Herald, Feb. 13, 1996


CARRBORO -- Lightning Brown always liked to have the last word.

On Monday, just hours after he died, the AIDS Service Agency of Orange County released his obituary.

He had written it himself.

Born Allan Brown, the 48-year-old lawyer and community activist picked the name Lightning in a bolt of independence after he told his parents he was gay and they temporarily disowned him.

"It's just my favorite thing," Brown explained of his chosen name last year. "It's so exciting. I used to take people out in rainstorms just so we could see it."

Best known locally for his tireless advocacy on behalf of Bolin Creek, a frail Brown visited Chapel Hill Town Hall last year to ask Town Council members to name a portion of the Bolin Creek Greenway after him.

The Greenways Commission is scheduled to discuss the request on Wednesday, chairwoman Andrea Rohrbacher said.

"I am strongly in favor of it," she said Monday afternoon. Commission members will discuss several options, including naming the entire greenways or just a portion. The existing portion, from Airport Road to Elizabeth Street, is already named for early preservationist Alice Welch, though the sign with her name has not yet been installed.

The Greenways Commission was supposed to have taken up Brown's request last month, but because of bad weather postponed the meeting, Rohrbacher said.

"I still feel badly, though I'm not sure it would have gone all the way [through the approval process] by now," she said.

The commission will make a recommendation to the town's naming committee, which will make a recommendation to the Town Council.

Brown died about 12:50 p.m. with family and friends at his bedside in the residence for people with AIDS on North Greensboro Street and Robert Hunt Drive in Carrboro.

His brother, Andy Brown, said he hopes people will remember Brown for his honesty, integrity and commitment. "I'm 16 years his junior," said Andy Brown, a law student. "Much of the character that drove him to do those political things I found admirable and hope to emulate."

A leader in both the Democratic Party and local gay and lesbian politics since 1976, Brown served on the Chapel Hill Planning Board, Greenways Task Force, the county's Low/Moderate Income Housing Task Force and the Chapel Hill Stormwater Management Task Force.

Friend Joe Herzenberg wasn't surprised Brown had written his own obituary, or that he chose to live his final months in the public spotlight.

"It fits into the context of his life very well," Herzenberg , a former Town Council member, said. "Because he was a public person. ... He was always open and out about everything."

Brown graduated from law school in 1991. That same year he brought a 10-minute video to the Town Council showing sewage debris and cracked manholes along the Bolin Creek sewer line down the hill from his Clark Road home.

The line had been overflowing after heavy storms for 15 years, Brown said. His persistence -- he threatened the Orange Water and Sewer Authority with the state's Clean Water Act -- pressured OWASA to finally make repairs.

Ironically, Brown was appointed to the OWASA board of directors last year, but could serve only a few months.

Brown had been frank about having AIDS, which he got from unprotected sex, saying he wanted to tell people so that they could protect themselves. He suffered from renal failure, lymphoma and a yeast infection that affected his entire body.

"His family is just the most amazing people I have ever met," said Sarah Butzen, a caregiver at the house on North Greensboro Street and Robert Hunt Drive.

Indeed, even after he was confined to his bed, Brown continued to hold court. At the AIDS Service Agency's Christmas open house, guests had to line up in the hallway outside his room in order to see him.

More recently, Herzenberg said he just popped his head in to say hello so as not to disturb a conversation Brown, who liked to write poetry, was having with noted author and Duke University professor Reynolds Price.

"It was wonderful the way his community rallied to support him," Butzen said. "He actually was never alone."

But his death may have brought Brown relief. Asked the hardest part of having AIDS during a 1995 interview, he did not hesitate.

"Wanting to die ... and knowing it's going to take a while," he said. "I want peace."

The son of Marie and Byron Brown of Encino, Calif., Brown is survived by two sisters, Susan Penrod of Piedmont, Calif., and Nancy Brown of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; and two brothers, Peter Brown of Decatur, Ga., and Andy Brown of Sacramento, Calif.

A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Friends Meeting House in Chapel Hill. Donations to ACT-UP Triangle may be made c/o Stuart Fisher, 4201 University Drive, Suite 102, Durham 27707.

Lightning Brown recalled as fighter on local, gay issues: Chapel Hill activist dies at 48

The News & Observer, Feb. 13, 1996

By Chris O'Brien

CHAPEL HILL - Even as he lay dying in a Carrboro home for AIDS patients in recent weeks, Lightning Brown couldn't stop working on local issues.

Brown was drafting an ordinance to clarify Chapel Hill's rules for people who run businesses in their homes. It was issues like this one, obscure yet crucial to people's lives, that fired Brown's blood during the past 20 years of being one of the most consistent and persuasive community activists in town. The only thing that finally could stop Brown from getting his way, it seems, was the AIDS virus that finally overwhelmed him Monday. He was 48.

"We have lost a great friend," said Joe Herzenberg, a former Town Council member. "And not just me, but the whole town."

Brown gained his greatest notoriety in 1981 when he became what was thought to be the first openly gay man to run for public office in North Carolina. He did nothing to shrink from his sexual preferences.

But he was unnerved by the amount of prejudice and the number of threats he encountered during the race.

"I think he got a lot of flak that was frightening," said Nancy Brown, his sister, who moved to Chapel Hill several months ago to care for him.

Though he failed in his bid for the Town Council, he became an inspiration for the local gay community.

"He tended to get his way because he kept at it," said Doug Ferguson, a founding member of the Orange Lesbian and Gay Association. "His intent was to make Chapel Hill a great place to live."

Brown's loss in the council race did nothing to diminish his involvement in public life. He became absorbed in local issues. It all flowed from Brown's philosophy, Herzenberg said.

"He believed that local issues mattered the most," he said. "He thought these were the things that really had an impact on people's lives."

That meant organizing apartment tenants in the early 1980s against the threat of building owners who wanted to upgrade to expensive condominiums. It also meant helping the town hammer out a plan to build greenways along area creeks and streams.

And it meant fighting for gay rights not just in the political arena, but also on the personal level. He encouraged gays and lesbians in the area to get involved with organizations and public life so that straight people would meet them and overcome their prejudices.

"He thought that was the most effective route toward gay liberation," Herzenberg said.

Brown came to the Triangle from Oregon in 1976 when he helped a friend move to the area.

Short of money, he stuck around and never left. He took several jobs with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including computer programming.

In 1990, Brown graduated from UNC's law school, but his illness kept him from practicing. So he turned his energies to things such as participating in clinical studies for HIV patients, his sister said.

Last year, Brown was appointed to the Orange Water and Sewer Authority board, of which he had been a frequent critic. He also lobbied local boards a year ago to pass laws banning discrimination against homosexuals.

And when the Chapel Hill Town Council passed a resolution in November honoring him, Brown took the occasion to lobby against a proposed gun sculpture on Franklin Street. He also asked the council to name the Bolin Creek Greenway - which he helped create - after him.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Friends Meeting House on Raleigh Road in Chapel Hill.

The family requests that donations be sent to ACT-UP Triangle.