Becky Heron, a Durham County commissioner from 1982 until 2011, died early Thursday. Before her death, Heron’s friend Melissa Rooney began collecting Durham residents’ comments and memories of her as a gift for Heron’s family.
The submissions below are posted with Rooney’s permission and that of the authors:
When I first moved to Durham, my first introduction to folks involved running the city/county was her campaign flyer “Keep HERon” I thought it was adorable and used it as an example in my sociology of politics class at UNC.
— Nathalie Spring
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I remember Beck for many, many things and will always cherish my memories of our time together.
One memory for me has been putting up thousands of signs over the years. When I first starting putting up her signs (you know, the wooden stake kind) Becky would come by my house and ask how many signs I wanted. It didn’t matter how many I would say I wanted – because she would leave 50 or more and ask that I get them out like yesterday! After putting them out I would have splinters and blisters on my hands. In a couple of days after I would get them all out ... Beck would call to see if I had done my job and then say that she was at a Bar B Q somewhere and there were no signs in the area. Of course that meant Jackie I need you to put up 50 more signs.
One Saturday morning she sent (her husband, Duncan) over with some signs — he and I were going to put up some in northern Durham. At our first stop, when Dunc opened up the trunk, it was packed with signs, stakes and staples!! OMG!! We spent nine hours putting up signs that day. I could not close my hands together for two days they hurt so bad. And Dunc had his in ice the next day. Beck never thought she had enough signs saying — “Keep Her-On.”
I am at my beach house and some of you know Becky’s beach house is next to mine. Dunc ask me to go over and get something from their house and bring it back home for him.
I went over late this afternoon and as I went into their bedroom checking on their house and getting the item for Duncan — I saw some of Beck’s books and things by the bedside. As I looked around at all the memories hanging on the wall, lots of different kinds of heron birds setting on the end tables in the den and her favorite place on the couch, it hit me that my friend would never return to watch the herons on the dock as the sun was setting over the water. So I went out on the deck and sat in her rocking chair and cried and said goodbye to my friend and Durham’s best servant ever.
— Jackie Brown
We all know it’s a sad fact that many healthy dogs and cats have to be euthanized each year at the county animal shelter. I remember the moment years ago when Becky told me that the procedure would now be done by two people – one to administer the injection and another person to comfort the animal. She didn’t say she was the main person responsible for getting county government to pay for that, but I’m sure she was. I count it as one of the many ways she made Durham a better, more humane place and will always remember and thank her for it.
What I remember most vividly was Becky calling out the 751 (South) boys as “land speculators” — not dignifying them with the appellation “developers” — that was the most classic Becky I ever heard!
— Milo Pyne
I appreciate greatly the untiring public service that Becky Heron has given to Durham County over her many years, both as an elected official and active community person. I had the privilege and honor of serving with Becky on the Durham County Board of Commissioners for 26 years (1972-1994; 1996-2000).
Becky has always been willing to speak her mind and to ask the tough, but right, questions. Her unwavering support for our senior citizens, animals and the protection of our environment was unquestionable.
On a personal note, Becky seconded the motion in 1982 which enabled me to become chairman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, for which I will forever be grateful. Becky also was among the persons who came to me in 2001 to encourage me to become a candidate for the “Office of the Mayor of Durham, N.C.”
I hope that during her retirement from public service she may have had the happiness and relaxation which she truly earned and deserved.
— William V.”Bill “ Bell
I remember how for years she was the go-to commissioner for everyday problems – flooding, traffic, animals — and that everyone knew to call her.
When she called me, she always started with “Bocckino . . .” and ended with “Please let me know what I can do for you.” And she meant it.
— Steve Bocckino
I remember Becky, full of energy, walking, moving fast, just being everywhere, she was truly engaged in our community. This availability is why people did feel comfortable contacting her for everyday needs.
— Nancy Cox
I think of Becky in particular in terms of her long support of the effort to protect New Hope Creek. She was an important voice at the meeting of 30 or so people at Githens Middle School in about 1988 that first organized the effort that got the City of Durham, Durham County, Orange County and the Town of Chapel Hill to commission Ken Coulter to do the New Hope Corridor Master Plan. She supported adoption of the plan by the Commission in 1992 and then helped with the many steps in implementation. This has resulted in four major parks: Leigh Farm Park, Old Chapel Hill Road Park, Sandy Creek Park and Hollow Rock Park, as well as a system of connecting trails where almost all the right of way has been acquired and the actual trails are slowly being built.
Moreover, with Becky’s strong support, dozens of developments in the corridor were either turned down or were modified in ways that protected the corridor and often also gave an easement (or outright donation) for a public trail. It’s been a long journey and we are not yet “there” but already thousands of people are enjoying the New Hope resource. Becky was there at the start and every step along the way. I hope she can take some pride in this permanent imprint on our landscape. — Robert G. Healy
She was my inspiration behind the many years I spent working for seniors, long before we actually built the Center for Senior Life.
So Becky and I were close friends at the time, nothing political about it, but I’m sure that’s how we met. It’s the early 1990s, probably 1991 or 1992 at the latest, I’m starting to conclude that we are way under-prepared for the onslaught of senior citizens, and spending volunteer time at the insanely under-funded agency that serves seniors.
Also meet this guy, named Terry Parrish (deceased) who loves to teach folks line dancing, square dancing, etc., and he eventually taught classes in many of the senior centers. By simply coupling Terry Parrish to the senior centers, the agency provided healthy recreation to both, and many seniors instantly found benefit including Terry, who had a routine you (Melissa) and I couldn’t possibly keep up with.
And Becky joined that line dance class, and told me she was having a ball! That was after I asked her to join the board of the nonprofit that had provided the experience for her. But I knew I had fulfilled my goal right then, if I had introduced old Durhamites to something that enhanced their lives in their senior years, well, she confirmed for me that it was possible to take that agency to where it was serving seniors of all incomes instead of those well below the poverty line (its historic past).
Becky joined the board of directors of the Senior Center, as did Howard Clement, the same day I asked them, again this is early 1990-1992, and I’ve always seen that as the pivotal moment of the creation of the Center for Senior Life. ...
Becky, you might have noticed how what happened 20 years ago is a clearer memory than what happened yesterday. Totally natural. So I sure hope you remember how diligently you took up senior issues as soon as I pointed them out the need for them.
What you probably never knew is that you personally finding the exercise, fun, friends, etc that you found with Terry Parrish’s group – gave me the inspiration to spend 12 years working on that center. She didn’t fight for her own rights to enjoy that recreational activity, though that was in the balance, she fought for senior citizens in general.
I’ve fought a lot of battles along side Becky, this is just one of them. I’ll always think of her as a comrade in arms, partner, and mutual lover of Durham dedicated to seeing it at its finest.
I’m sure that sounds pretty cliche, but if you knew the depth of that dedication, it wouldn’t.
What I never shared with Becky is that she was my inspiration while she served as a board member. The Center for Senior Life most assuredly wouldn’t exist without her.
I’ve learned over the years that the most powerful thing you can do is inspire someone else do something. Becky has always been my inspiration.
Don’t even want to list the other issues, there are too many, we did what we could.
— Bill Anderson
Years ago, we learned that Hanson Aggregates, the world’s largest cement maker, wanted to build a cement batch plant at the end of Denfield Road. We found out on a Monday; the Development Review Board vote was that Friday.
We started contacting people, sending emails. More than a few said not to bother; DRB approval was a technical formality. Tuesday was neighborhood listservs, Wednesday was contacting elected officials and Denfield neighbors, Thursday was reporters calling.
Friday morning, walked into the DRB meeting. Not feeling too good about things.
Then I saw Becky and Ellen (Reckhow) quietly sitting in the third row. Becky had this wonderful smile on her face. The cavalry.
Last week, I walked with my kids along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, between West Point and Penny’s Bend. A peaceful hike.
I looked across the Eno at the back of Teer Quarry, now an emergency water supply for Durham in times of drought. I was looking right where the cement batch plant would have gone. A heron flew down the valley. The trees were singing. It was beautiful.
— John Schelp
I am so sorry to hear that Becky’s time here is so short. She is a remarkable lady who has certainly made Durham a better place. I will always be grateful to her for her support of environmental and animal rights issues. I know she was a big supporter of starting the Sustainability Office and the work that I do. She has a very compassionate heart and the people of Durham (and the environment in Durham) are so lucky that she spent so much time and energy looking out for us and fighting for what is right. She and her family are in my thoughts.
— Tobin L. Freid
The first time I met Becky was the first time I went before the Board of County Commissioners in the mid-1980s over a neighborhood rezoning. I’d never done anything like that and was intimidated by the whole process. I learned that Becky was instrumental in keeping the peoples’ business in front of the people and not in back rooms.
Over the years, Becky would be the one to show up at developer/neighborhood meetings, or for that matter almost any public event in Durham County. Becky was a fearless and tireless representative for the people of Durham, the go-to person for problems great and small, always ready to help. I loved it when she used to say, “You better not mess with my children or my animals. My husband can take care of himself.” In 2008, I had the honor of nominating Becky for the Goodmon Award. She won in the elected official category, deservedly so.
— Carol Young
I must have met Becky way, way back when the very first “Save the Eno” project began. We had cobbled together a tape slideshow or movie featuring areas up and down the river that would be wiped out if the river was dammed (read also “DAMNED”) and the first showing was over in Becky’s basement. The background music was “Let It Be.” I wonder whatever happened to that film. I had a cameo appearance standing out in the river on a big boulder. Along with Margaret Nygard and Hildegard Ryals, Becky was a large player in keeping both the Eno River and New Hope Creek in a relatively pristine state. And yes, Becky always knew the right person to call if there was a problem with Durham County!
— Liz Pullman
Becky was an avid board member when I was at Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She understood sense of place and that place-based assets involve natural as well as built and cultural.
She grasped that setting northern Durham aside in watershed was not only crucial for ecosystem services but it will make Durham unique for centuries to come as North Carolina builds out.
I miss her very much and wish her the best.
— Reyn Bowman
In addition to what Mark (Hellman) said about the animal shelter, which had UNTOUCHABLE funding as long as Becky was around, I recall Duncan and her handing out water at the Festival for the Eno for many years. Becky was always a worker, not just a talker. — Page McCullough
I first met Becky in 2007 by email, and then by phone, when I contacted her about a development called the Fayetteville Assemblage, for which Haden-Stanziale had applied to fill a portion of the Crooked Creek floodway fringe (so they could build a road across the creek). I emailed the InterNeighborhood Council listserv that, among other things, “Commissioner Heron has requested that people contact the Board of County Commissioner with their concerns.” Bill Anderson (and others) smiled at my formality and promptly told me, with the utmost respect, that she was “just Becky.” From then on, like everyone else, I was on a first-name basis with Becky, and I was so comfortable around her that it seemed like I had grown up under her wing.
Becky always answered the phone when I called and encouraged me to speak up at County Commissioner meetings, Joint City County Planning meetings, any time I had questions or suggestions. She always told me exactly what she was thinking, including what she didn’t know and how I might go about getting answers (usually by her asking around on my behalf, often pulling me along and introducing me to the planning director, county manager, mayor, whoever might be able to help).
By the end of the first year I knew her, Becky asked, “You wanna run for the Board of County Commissioners?’” Her spiel (which she apparently gave to several new people every year) made it sound so easy, but it was obvious from her 24/7 communication and dedication that county commissioner was not a job to be taken lightly – at least not if you wanted to do it right, as Becky certainly did. She repeatedly told me (and others) that she was a testament that one didn’t have to be an expert or a politician to run and that one should expect to lose the first time around, as she had. I remember reciting this take of Becky’s when I wanted to convince Nancy Cox to run for School Board a second time, which she did and won.
Becky has never held herself above her constituents, all of whom have an equal chance of calling her a friend. She is a role model for laypersons in Durham, in the South, and everywhere. She never let ignorance intimidate her – she just asked the right questions to replace that ignorance with the knowledge she needed to do what she truly believed was best for her world in the long run. And because of this, she never looked down on anyone for being ignorant or let anyone use ignorance as an excuse for being and doing less than they should.
I will forever be grateful for having met Becky Heron and for her influence in my life. She has changed who I am for the better.
Becky, you are one of a kind, and I am so lucky to know you.
— Melissa Rooney
I met Becky in 2008, two years after we moved to Durham. We were becoming involved in water quality issues and bad development practices. Becky was the “go to” person if you wanted an elected official to really listen to citizen concerns. Becky had no ulterior motives other than to make Durham a better place. She was a real firecracker and I think many of us enjoyed watching her when she was in her groove. I have a lot of respect for her and really appreciate all the advice she has given to me and the countless others of her community. She even worked hard to help the animals. Becky made Durham a better place. She will probably make heaven a better place too.
— Tina Motley Pearson
I am from Durham and it seems like Becky Heron was a county commissioner for most of my life. On the commission she stood up for the environment and the quality of life at the southern end of the county, such as in resisting Scott Mill and 751 South, and was a progressive vote on other issues. I appreciate her work and her participation in community events, like the holiday parade in Parkwood. I regret that I never met her in person, though she received many messages from me and I attended several county commissioner meetings and saw her in action. — Michael Pollock
She leaves a legacy of permanently protected open space and a multitude of other environmental issues. While she had been in declining health the last couple of years, her spirit has still been with us and she will be sorely missed.
— Jane Korest
I worked with Becky on lots of environment and zoning issues over the years and rehearsing these would just be old news. The thing I remember that reveals Becky’s strength the best is an incident that happened many years ago.
In the late 80s or even the early 90s, there was a fellow named Cannon or Canon – somebody else will remember his name – who owned or managed a bunch of apartments in the Brogden Heights neighborhood. He was an old-school Durham conservative and got riled up about the trend towards liberalism in Durham politics. For a year or two, he became distinctly noisy and critical of Durham’s leading liberal lights, Becky included. He began to make sizable campaign contributions. He sent out his own mailings in which he criticized certain candidates and endorsed others – a sort of one-man PAC. His appeal was visceral and he developed a following. He got right much play in the Herald, as I recall it.
As part of his campaign, he threw a huge party for anyone who wanted to come. His followers flocked to it. He sort of challenged all candidates and elected officials to come. The liberals stayed away. I stayed away. He was the kind of guy who might take advantage of a gathering to badmouth those with whom he disagreed.
Becky, however, went to the party and even danced with the guy – Canon or whatever his name was. He was charmed by her refusal to be afraid of him and wound up respecting her. He may have even supported her.
That is Becky. Unafraid. A representative of the whole community – never surrounding herself only with those with whom she agreed. Ready to party with the opposition without surrendering her principles.
This is how Becky went from losing her first electoral bid to becoming the candidate that needed no PAC endorsement or big campaign contributions to win. Her connection with the citizens was direct, one-on-one, not through any PAC or organization. Sincere, open, honest, unafraid, principled, willing to take a chance, trustworthy, hardworking. Always a known quantity. That’s why liberals voted for her and that’s why conservatives voted for her.
I wish I could remember the guy’s name. He was quite a character. So was Becky.
— Tom Miller