Former County Commissioner Becky Heron dies at 86

Jan. 23, 2014 @ 08:06 PM

Former County Commissioner Rebecca M. “Becky” Heron died early Thursday morning, friends and county officials said. She was 86.

Mrs. Heron served on the Board of County Commissioners from 1982 until she resigned in the summer of 2011 for health reasons. She chaired the board for two years, from late 1994 to late 1996.

County Manager Michael Ruffin ordered that flags outside county facilities be flown at half-mast in Mrs. Heron’s honor until her funeral. Arrangements for those services remain pending.

“We lost a Durham treasure,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, a longtime colleague, ally and friend of Mrs. Heron’s. “She devoted 30 years of her life to Durham County.”

A native of Cheraw, S.C., and graduate of the University of South Carolina, Mrs. Heron first ran for a County Commissioners seat in 1980. She lost, finishing ninth in a field of 12. But she opted to run again two years later and, in her second try, made it into office.

Once there, she supported fellow Commissioner William V. Bell’s successful bid to become the first black chairman of the county board. She also backed a major change of its meeting schedule, moving sessions to a nighttime start so more residents could attend.

“Becky was a fighter,” said Mr. Bell, now mayor of the city of Durham. “You always knew where she was coming from.”

Her subsequent terms were marked by her support of environmental causes, animal welfare, a senior center for the elderly and a major renovation of Durham County Stadium.

She was instrumental in securing passage of the county’s first animal-control ordinance and the construction of a modern animal shelter, family members said.

On the environmental front, she favored strong watershed-protection rules and backed preservation of the Eno River and New Hope Creek corridors.

Her work just on the New Hope corridor contributed to the establishment of four parks, laid the ground for a system of connecting trails and made sure developments that might have damaged it either were rejected or modified, said Robert G. Healy, professor emeritus at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

No matter the cause or issue, Mrs. Heron was direct and straightforward in her dealings with fellow officials and the public, colleagues said.

“You might not have agreed with her, but she was not going to talk behind your back,” said Mr. Ruffin. “There was no difference between what she said and what she did. Staff respected her for that.”

Similar praise came from Mr. Ruffin’s predecessor, former County Manager David Thompson.

“You never had to guess, as a manager, about where Becky Heron was coming from,” said Mr. Thompson, now the executive director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. “She was really easy to work with because there were no areas of gray.”

Mrs. Heron was chairwoman of the board for Mr. Thompson’s hiring in 1996. He recalled a short negotiation over contract terms.

“She called me to offer me the position, and stated a salary,” Mr. Thompson said. “I said I’d like to think about it, and her response was, ‘Take it or leave it.’ Once she thought she was right on an issue, that was the end of the discussion. She was real direct and always had the best interests of Durham County at heart.”

Mrs. Heron’s retirement in the summer of 2011 came on the advice of her doctors, after she had missed a couple of commissioners meetings. She acknowledged the office had been “a big part” of her life.

“The county kind of takes precedence in this household most of the time – not all the time, but most of the time,” Mrs. Heron said in an interview a week before announcing her decision.

After stepping down, she lent support to Commissioner Wendy Jacobs’ attempts to succeed her on the board, eventually recording a “robocall” message for use in the 2012 campaign.

“On election day, the thing I heard over and over again from people was that it was great to hear Becky’s voice,” Commissioner Jacobs recalled. “She had such a persona, such a personality, and people loved her. She could relate to everybody in the community – and people could relate to her.”

Mrs. Heron’s health went into what Mr. Ruffin termed a clear and rapid decline in recent weeks, and word circulated amongst her friends that it was time for goodbyes. Many went to her home for a last visit, Commissioner Reckhow among them.

“Even though she was very weak, she seemed to perk up when I told her the news in the ‘courthouse,’ which is how she referred to the county building,” Commissioner Reckhow said.

Another friend, Melissa Rooney, said was “forever grateful that I was able to see that ‘Becky Sparkle’ one last time” in Mrs. Heron’s eyes after reading to her during a visit last week.

“I just hope her family can be comforted by the legacy and the very solid reputation she built as a citizen and as a commissioner,” Mr. Ruffin said.

Mrs. Heron is survived by her husband, Duncan Heron, and their two children.