Chapel Hill: Community

Valerie Yow: 8 who have made Chapel Hill special

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.”

Elizabeth Gervais-Gruen, now 102, was there, eyes sparkling. She is a pioneer in immigration law and mentored other lawyers in this specialty. Among the seven who founded the Carolinas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, she served as the chapter chair. She has worked tirelessly to help newcomers to our country and town settle and enjoy the benefits of living in a democracy. Nancy Preston, who served on the Town Council, has worked tirelessly to make sure we preserve our town’s historic neighborhoods. This is the tangible evidence of our past and of the people who made the town the livable place it is today. Pat Evans has devoted her time and energy into planning for the revitalization of downtown Chapel Hill. Many remember the days when she, as a member of the Town Council, invited citizens to meet her weekly at a local restaurant for coffee and conversation about ways to develop downtown Chapel Hill as a friendly place of thriving businesses. She is among the individuals we can thank for the free bus system and safe sidewalks.

Arthur DeBerry focused on the natural beauty of Chapel Hill. He grew up on a farm where his father and grandfather raised not only crops, but flowers; so in childhood he developed an interest in beautiful plants. He came to Chapel Hill in 1954 to study at the university and decided to stay because the campus was so lovely. After college, he was able to settle in Chapel Hill and pursue a career in insurance. He also decided his goal would be to protect and expand the natural beauty of the town. He joined the board of the Botanical Garden and began to work for the preservation and expansion of natural resources. Proudly, he told me that a foreign student remarked to him, “Chapel Hill is one big garden.”

Verla Insko, now involved in her 10th campaign for election to the North Carolina General Assembly, is well known as a hard-working representative. She came to Chapel Hill in 1965 and realized immediately that as a university-oriented town, there were “a lot of good ideas and people following through on them.” She began working on community organizations like the Orange County Women’s Center and the Orange County Partnership for Young Children and never stopped. She pointed out with pride that we have “a diverse town today.”

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.