DURHAM — Former Durham County Commissioner Becky Heron died Thursday morning after several years of declining health. She was 86.
Heron was elected to the Board of County Commissioners, the board’s second woman, in 1982 and served for almost 30 years before retiring in 2011 for health reasons.
“Becky was special,” said County Manager Mike Ruffin. “I’ve been talking to county employes who are literally crying.”
Commissioners elected Heron the board’s first chairwoman in 1994, and in 1995 she was named Outstanding County Commissioner by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.
Ruffin, who is retiring at the end of January, said “for me, maybe one of the last honors I get to do is order the county employees to fly our flags at half mast until the day after her funeral.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Heron was born Nov. 2, 1927, in Cheraw, S.C. and graduated with a degree in English and retailing from the University of South Carolina in 1948. She is survived by her husband, Duncan, a retired Duke University geologist, and a daughter and son.
“Becky was always a fighter,” said Mayor Bill Bell, reached in Washington where he is attending the National Conference of Mayors. “She always told you what she thought.”
Bell served with Heron on the county board from 1982 until 1994 and from 1996 until 2000. He said that Heron, soon after taking her seat in 1982, seconded his nomination for board chairman – the first black person to hold that position.
Heron was an active member of the Animal Protection Society of Durham, and deeply concerned with animal welfare. She helped create the county’s first animal-control ordinance.
“Becky was small in stature, but she was a giant of a leader in the community,” said state Sen. Mike Woodard. “I always admired her passion. She was the eternal optimist.”
Heron was also a champion for the environment, a member since the 1960s of the Eno River Association, which works to permanently protect land along the river.
“Perhaps her most substantial legacy is the fact Durham has clean water,” said City Councilman Steve Schewel. “She did everything she could do make sure Durham had clean water for generations to come.”
Woodard said he particularly appreciated her leadership as the county commissioners’ chairwoman in the mid-1990s, when the county board had a partisan split between Democratic and Republican members. Heron, like Woodard, was a Democrat, but Woodard said she had a great ability “to work with so many disparate groups.”
Woodard said he was “lucky” to have had Heron as a mentor in public office and politics. Chapel Hill Town Councilman Ed Harrison, a longtime friend of Heron, also remarked on her political skill and knowledge.
According to Harrison, it was said of Heron that, if one wanted to try to earn a doctorate in politics, Durham was the place to earn it and Heron the dissertation adviser.
Ruffin said Heron was always very concerned about serving the public. It was at her urging that county commissioners changed their meeting time from afternoon to evening so would be more available to the public.
‘A people person’
Running for re-election in 2004, Heron said in a campaign statement to the News & Observer:
“I will work to provide resources for education, protect neighborhoods, encourage county development that shows a real concern for protecting our natural and valuable resources, encourage industrial development so that jobs are available for our citizens, provide training for citizens to fill these jobs and keep the county on a sound financial footing. I am a strong advocate for openness in our county government. I am available to the public. I return phone calls and emails.”
“She was a people person,” said Bell. “If someone called, she didn’t hesitate to find out what she could do to help them out,” he said.
“She was a rock for Durham County,” added Schewel. “She loved the people here, and she fought for them every minute she was on the county commission.”
Durham resident Melissa Rooney, a friend of Heron’s and a fellow environmentalist, shared an email account of her last visit with Heron, on Jan. 15:
“She tried to talk, but I told her not to strain and that I just wanted to read her a few things that several people had written me to tell her when I see her,” Rooney wrote.
“She closed her eyes, and I wasn’t sure if she was listening, but I kept reading. Then I said, ‘Well, Becky, I’m gonna have to go, but I will be back next week, OK?’ And she opened her eyes and reached out her hand and tried to talk. I leaned in close and put my ear next to her mouth, but I could not understand what she was saying.
“I told her so, and then I said, ‘Oh, Becky, it must be so difficult for you not to be able to talk. I’m a talker too, you know, and I can’t imagine not being able to talk.’ And her eyes lit up and she smiled and nodded. I am forever grateful that I was able to see that Becky Sparkle one last time.”