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, October 30, 2007

Ex-Town Council member dies at 66: Joe Herzenberg served Chapel Hill from 1987 to 1993

Chapel Hill Herald, Oct. 30, 2007


CHAPEL HILL -- Joe Herzenberg, one the first openly gay elected officials in the state, a political mentor to many and a former Town Council member, died Sunday at UNC Hospitals.

He was 66 years old.

Mr. Herzenberg had been suffering from serious health problems related to diabetes for about a decade and was hospitalized in a coma about a year ago. He recovered from the coma and seemed to be doing better when he had a downturn several weeks ago and was hospitalized again.

His friends held a vigil at his hospital bed during his last days, and some of them were with him when he died.

Mr. Herzenberg's time on the Chapel Hill Town Council from 1987 to 1993 was filled with highs and lows. His friends and supporters said he led conservation efforts, worked to preserve the historic district of Chapel Hill, built the greenway system, was instrumental in developing the tree ordinance and always fought for the civil rights and civil liberties for all people.

Yet he resigned from the Town Council in 1993 when it became known that he had not filed his state tax returns from 1978 to 1992 or his intangible tax returns from 1986 to 1992. He resigned as election workers were close to validating a recall petition.

Mark Kleinschmidt, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, was with Mr. Herzenberg and friends at the hospital several hours before he died on Sunday evening. "Yesterday we were all gathering. The Rabbi had come and gone through the end of life process for him, and we made a schedule when each person would come to be with him," Kleinschmidt said.

Kleinschmidt went home and was scheduled to return later that night when he got a call about 6:15 p.m. Kleinschmidt rushed back to the hospital. "He was gone," he said.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, the youngest person to be elected to office in North Carolina, served on the Chapel Hill Town Council with Mr. Herzenberg and also was with him during his last hours.

Chilton, a student at UNC at the time, met Mr. Herzenberg as they both were running for two open seats on the Chapel Hill board. "I think Joe might have been the only person besides me that thought I could win in 1991," Chilton said. "He was somebody who really believed in me and helped give me a chance.

"When we both won in 1991, him by a landslide and me by a fingernail, we worked very closely on the Town Council," Chilton said. "I learned a lot about how to do things from Joe."

Mr. Herzenberg lived on Cobb Terrace for many years and walked downtown often, sometimes sitting in front of Pepper's Pizza, speaking to the many people he knew as they walked by. "He did cut an unusual profile," Chilton said with a laugh. "He was very recognizable, and he was always on foot."

Mr. Herzenberg knew not only the store owners by name, but also the employees and the homeless people and panhandlers who hung out downtown, Chilton said.

Kleinschmidt also was a student at UNC when he first met Mr. Herzenberg, he said. "Like many young people who are now involved in local issues, he was a very important part of helping me develop," Kleinschmidt said. "He was always so much more than a friend. He was my mentor. He was my teacher."

Although Mr. Herzenberg lived in Chapel Hill and served on the Town Council there, he was very influential in Carrboro politics as well, said Carrboro Alderman Jacquelyn Gist. "If anybody doubts Joe's influence in Carrboro, our last three mayors were mentored by him, Ellie Kinnaird, Mike Nelson and Mark Chilton," Gist said.

Staff writer Ginny Hoyle contributed to this report.

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