Blogs > Cliopatria > My Friend, Joe Herzenberg (1941-2007)

Oct 31, 2007 6:54 am

My Friend, Joe Herzenberg (1941-2007)

Almost all of us who've been to graduate school know someone who came, found it comfortable, and never left. My friend, Joe Herzenberg, was one of those people. We met in the fall of 1971, when I was President of UNC's Graduate History Society, and Joe was entering his doctoral program in history there. I liked him immediately. He was smart, well-educated, grumpy, gregarious, and secretive. I didn't then know all that we'd learn about Joe. He was born into a Jewish family in northern New Jersey, the oldest son of the town's pharmacist. He'd done his undergraduate work at Yale and was proud of having joined in one of its earliest protests against the war in Viet Nam.

In 1964, Joe volunteered in Mississippi Freedom Summer. He returned to Yale that year to do an M.A. in European History. Flush with an M.A., he returned to Mississippi and joined the history department at Tougaloo College in Jackson. A historically black school, Tougaloo was a center of Mississippi's civil rights movement. Shortly thereafter, Joe became the department's chairman and hired John Dittmer, who was just out of his doctoral program at Indiana University. John would soon become the dean of academic affairs at Tougaloo and, later, publish his Bancroft Prize-winning book, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. By the time Joe left Tougaloo for doctoral studies at Chapel Hill, he'd had a brief, failed marriage. But that was a part of the secretiveness, so we didn't know.

Joe and I were in graduate school together for only one year. I went off to my first full-time teaching job in Pennsylvania and Joe continued his program. I'd hear from or about him occasionally. The rumor was that he finished his course work and failed his written exams, but that he reported to the Southern Historical Collection regularly for research for his dissertation on one of Chapel Hill's liberal heroes, Frank Porter Graham. Increasingly, however, Joe was drawn to local politics. My wife, Jean, and I had been active in it, as well, between 1966 and 1972. In 1979, when my contract to teach at Allegheny College ran out, I was back in Chapel Hill and Joe gave me the honorific title of chairman of"Republicans for Herzenberg" in Joe's first and unsuccessful run for city council."Republicans for Herzenberg" was always a very small group of people.

Joe was appointed to Chapel Hill's city council in 1981, defeated for re-election, and then won a seat in his own right. He'd become North Carolina's first openly gay elected official and, in 1984, Jesse Helms won a narrow re-election by hanging Joe's support around the neck of his opponent, the popular Democratic Governor Jim Hunt. During those years, however, my friendship with Joe deteriorated. We heard little from him. Occasionally, he'd call about something that was important to him. When I answered the phone, he never lingered over pleasantries."I want to speak to Jean," he'd say."Joe, how are you," I'd say."This is Ralph.""I know. I want to speak to Jean." So, I'd turn the phone over to my wife and Joe would make a pitch for a contribution to his favorite cause. Money was always tight with us and his gruff appeals began to wear on me. In the early ‘90's, I was back in Chapel Hill and called him to see if we could get together."I can't see you," he said."I've got to do my laundry." Clearly, our friendship was no longer what it once had been. And, then, the story broke in the newspapers that, while a member of Chapel Hill's city council, Joe had not been paying his property taxes. Joe held on to his council seat for a year, but resigned in 1993 under considerable pressure from the press.

Our last conversation of any length was several years later, when I was thinking of republishing a series of books on the civil rights movement in North Carolina. I called Joe about it and the subject of John Ehle's book on the movement in Chapel Hill, The Free Men, came up."NO, you can't do it! He gave me the paperback rights and I'm going to get it republished," said Joe. Yeh, right, I thought. Just like you were going to publish a biography of Frank Porter Graham. This time, however, I'd misjudged Joe. John Ehle's The Free Men was republished earlier this year. It was one of Joe's last victories.

Shortly before The Free Men appeared, my wife and I were in Chapel Hill for the memorial service for the distinguished Southern historian, George Tindall. We were sitting off to a side and, during the service, I looked up to see a startling image haunting the back of the auditorium. I hadn't seen Joe in twenty years and surely didn't recognize him. He was obese beyond recognition. Unable to get in and out of shoes, socks, and pants, he stalked the back of the formal gathering in flip-flops and pajama bottoms. He wore a tent of a pullover shirt and, even indoors, a big floppy hat on his head. His face was bloated beyond recognition. In one hand, he steadied himself with a long staff. If you can imagine John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly dressed as a prophet in Israel, you get the picture. Recent years had been unkind to Joe. I didn't recognize who this was until he walked past me at the reception and growled:"Where's your wife? I want to speak to Jean."

Yet, I shamelessly wept when I read earlier today that Joe had died in Chapel Hill on Sunday. Wept for a friendship that once had been. For a friend from whom I was alienated. I'm grateful to Rabbi Jennifer Feldman, who prayed the Viddui at his bedside, and to Sally Greene and Joe's close circle of friends in Chapel Hill who held his hand as life ebbed away. Joe, I'll miss you. You were fabulous.

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More Comments:

Gerry Cohen - 11/2/2007

great to see your post. It filled in a lot of holes in my recollections. Joe was appointed to fill my Town Council vacancy in 1979. I remember you from 1971-72.
-Gerry Cohen

Ralph E. Luker - 10/31/2007

Thanks, Jeremy. I didn't mean to give the impression that Joe ever finished his doctoral work. He didn't. I suppose neither he nor we could cite a specific time when he decided that he wouldn't. It simply became less and less a significant part of his life.

Jeremy Young - 10/31/2007

The loss of a close friend is always hard -- I've had personal experience, even at my young age. My condolences to you and to Dr. Herzenberg's family.