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Remembering Joe

By Erik Ose


Joe Herzenberg

With Joe Herzenberg’s death, North Carolina has lost one of its most caring, kind and generous lights.

I first met Joe in 1990, as an undergrad. We shared mutual interests in progressive politics, the local political scene and voter registration. Joe was thrilled at the idea of trying to re-awaken the sleeping student vote at UNC. He encouraged me at every turn to make it happen.

We also bonded over my home state of Rhode Island. Joe spent part of almost every summer vacationing with his family on Block Island, a beautiful, unspoiled little island off the coast of Southern RI that he loved.

Like many who knew him, I have a small collection of postcards that Joe sent me over the years. His handwritten gestures followed me wherever I moved.

Joe befriended and mentored young people. It was a part of who he was, like his thoughtful postcards. And he kept up his interest even after most of us graduated and drifted away from Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

He didn’t like email or computers. Dubbed the “Mayor of Franklin Street,” Joe enjoyed walking around town and talking to people. He was old fashioned and very human.

Joe made me aware of the example set by Allard Lowenstein, one of his kindred spirits who, like Joe, had a flair for inspiring the young, worked tirelessly for progressive causes and shared Chapel Hill ties. Both Joe and Allard Lowenstein are near the top of my list of all-time political heroes, and I think it’s fitting that one introduced me to the other.

When Joe believed in something, he put his energy, resources and spirit behind it. He devoted his life to standing up for equality and justice. And it was infectious. His enthusiasm and sense of the possible about doing good in local politics got me and plenty of others involved.

Looking back on the conversations we had, I think about all the places around town I remember talking or having lunch with him. I loved talking with Joe. Besides his always perceptive take and inside dope on the latest political news, he was full of personal stories — about his adventures growing up in Franklin, New Jersey, living and working in Mississippi during the civil rights era of the ‘60s and what Chapel Hill was like in the ’70s and ’80s. He was our resident wise man.

The last time I saw and spoke with Joe was at the grocery store. We talked for a while, first walking the aisles, then I followed him outside and said goodbye when his faithful friend and caregiver Kathie Young pulled the car around. I regret not seeing more of him over these past couple of years. I’m sad that he’s left us too early, but I remember him full of life and laughter. I’ll miss him. Everyone who knew Joe will too.

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