Chapel Hill News

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Jonathan Howes dies at 78

Jonathan Howes served as Chapel Hill mayor and Town Council member, as a teacher and administrator at UNC, and in state government.
Jonathan Howes served as Chapel Hill mayor and Town Council member, as a teacher and administrator at UNC, and in state government. jrottet@newsobserver.com

Jonathan Broome Howes, who worked to improve town-gown relations during his two terms as Chapel Hill’s mayor, died Sunday after suffering complications from heart disease. He was 78.

He was a Chapel Hill Town Council member from 1975 to 1987, when he became mayor. He also served as Secretary of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources.

Town Council member and longtime colleague Ed Harrison said Howes was a steadying influence and considerate community leader.

When Harrison’s neighborhood was annexed by Chapel Hill 25 years ago, Howes reached out to him and his neighbors. He strove for fair representation and sought to encourage local involvement.

“No matter who you were,” Harrison said, “you got a seat at the table.”

Harrison said Howes, “because he had been my mayor,” was the only state cabinet member he would call at home to get his opinion on a public matter.

Howes was on a first-name basis with many community activists, Harrison said, taking an even-handed and gentle approach to those who supported him as well as those who opposed him.

“You get attacks from all side,” Harrison said. “But a lot of people said they never heard him raise his voice. He was a positive guy, all about solving problems, getting people to the table and doing things fairly.”

David Godschalk, professor emeritus at the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning, said Howes once lost an ambitious and controversial bid to develop a downtown Chapel Hill property.

“It ended up being a parking lot,” Godschalk said. “It would have been a major development, right in downtown Chapel Hill. But some residents thought it was too big. The wrong thing in the wrong place.”

Howes accepted the defeat and used the opportunity to bring opposing sides together.

“(Jonathan) was a leader that people liked,” Godschalk said. “He didn’t push his own agenda, but tried to bring people together – to think about the best overall outcome in terms of public interest.”

His talent for bringing opposing interests together shone when he worked to reconcile the needs of the university and town communities, said Ken Broun, Chapel Hill mayor from 1991 to 1995.

“He had great vision,” Broun said, “and an ability to reach solutions through compromise rather than controversy. He was mayor of Chapel Hill during a time of great growth in the community. He struck a balance (between the university and the town) very well because he dearly loved both and looked for their common interest.”

In 1992, Howes was appointed Secretary of the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources for the state by Gov. Jim Hunt, where he served for five years. Under his leadership, the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund was established with a dedicated revenue stream. In recognition of his service, he was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

Beginning in 1970, he served 23 years as the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at UNC. After his term as state secretary, Howes returned to the university in a variety of roles including special assistant to the chancellor, where he co-chaired the UNC Campus Master Plan.

Rachel Willis, an associate professor at UNC who co-taught a recurring seminar with Howes, said he was driven by a love for innovation.

“He was always a cheerleader for cooperative opportunities,” Willis said. “He was always moving forward – not through people, but with them.”

He shared this collaborative spirit with his students. Willis said it was common to find him sitting on UNC campus with current or past students, sharing ideas and challenges. He used practical problems in class to instill a balanced approach to community leadership.

“Jonathan understood balance,” Willis said. “And he lived it – that’s what he gave to his students.”

Howes first visited Chapel Hill in 1955 before enrolling at UNC as an undergraduate. He transferred to Wittenberg University in Ohio, completing his bachelor’s degree there in 1959.

He returned to North Carolina to earn his master’s degree in city and regional planning from UNC. In 1960, he moved to Washington, D.C. and worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Kennedy administration. He earned his second master’s degree, this time in public administration, from Harvard University in 1966.

Howes is survived by his wife of 55 years, Mary, three children and eight grandchildren. A public memorial will be held this summer. Memorial contributions may be made to Triangle Land Conservancy, North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation, or WUNC Radio.

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