A large crowd of people with expectant faces filled Chapel Hill Public Library auditorium Oct. 15 to celebrate the deeds of eight Chapel Hillians, men and women who had for years worked to make our town more progressive, more socially conscious and more exciting.
I heard someone say, “Just about everybody who is outstanding in helping the town is here tonight.” There was also a feeling of “this evening is special” because it was the first time the Chapel Hill Historical Society held a party in its new library home.
After an impressive awards ceremony, everybody went to an adjoining room for refreshments. (I’m always in favor of this move and quickly had a full plate.) I nibbled orange bars and then forgot to nibble when I started talking to Ken Broun. He came to live in Chapel Hill 46 years ago and was our mayor from 1991-95. He remembered that when he first came, he could walk nearly everywhere he wanted to go. Chapel Hill has a lot of the “big city” in it now, he said, but has managed to keep the friendly, relaxed feeling of a small town. How does a town do that?
I tugged at Lee Pavao’s sleeve. He first came to Chapel Hill in 1983 to bring his son to the university. He liked the town so much he started looking for a home. At that time he lived in Brazil and worked for a multinational advertising agency. He said, “I’ve lived in three military dictatorships and one benevolent monarchy.” By 1988, he had retired and moved here to live permanently. He asked everybody who came to the Orange County Visitors Bureau where he volunteered, “What did you find here that made you want to come back?” They replied along these lines: “There is something special here, a mystique. It doesn’t leave you.”
Maybe one aspect of the mystique – the friendly, relaxed feeling – is created by people with the kind of generosity Irene Briggaman has for perfect strangers. She came to Chapel Hill in 1964 and became an active parent in helping the school. As soon as her children graduated, she widened her efforts to help the town – such efforts as raising money for the Triangle Land Conservancy and for the Food Bank of North Carolina. She originated and put into practice the RSVVP – a practice whereby on a certain day every year restaurants give 10 percent of the income that day to the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service. I said, “You don’t get a paycheck for all this work you do.” She replied: “It depends on what you call ‘pay.’ ... The pay for me is seeing that people are helped.”
Each of these eight individuals has an inspiring story; each has done more for our town than I can describe here. Together, these lives contribute answers to my question, How does a town maintain a certain ambiance of well-being? You will be seeing more about the creative, dedicated individuals honored this year in future issues of The Chapel Hill News.
Valerie Yow received a Ph. D. in history from the University of Wisconsin. Her first oral history project involved interviewing three generations of women mill workers in Carrboro. She lives in Chapel Hill.