Becky Heron remembered as Durham "force of nature"

Feb. 15, 2014 @ 04:44 PM

Friends and family of longtime county commissioner Becky Heron recalled when election time would roll around. “Keep Her On” signs littered Durham yards, a testament to Heron’s influence throughout her 29 years of service on the board.

Heron was 86 years old when she passed away Jan. 23, leaving behind a legacy of no-holds-barred opinions, respectful discourse and energetic advocacy for the county’s seniors, environment and animals.

People who knew Heron left the rain and chill behind them as they filtered into Duke Chapel Saturday to talk of her warmth.

Stephen, her son, walked up to the lectern. He said he hadn’t planned on speaking, but he wanted to share pieces of his mother’s life that may be unknown to those who worked with her in government.

She made the best fried chicken and took the time to cook for her family, even though the phone rang nonstop. She “could sing like a bird,” Stephen said. She introduced him to “Star Trek” and took him to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Rialto Theatre.

She grew up in a family dedicated to service, Stephen continued. “She had a great run.”

Stephen, along with Heron’s husband of 66 years, Dr. Stephen Duncan Heron, Jr., and her daughter, Stephani Emmons, sat in the front row. Two of Heron’s four grandchildren, Bretani Luker and Becky Emmons, read scripture, the words reverberating off the North Carolina stone walls.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…”

Heron was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 1982, the second woman to serve in this role and the first woman to chair the board, from 1994 to 1996. She resigned in 2011 due to health reasons.

She had a hand in ensuring Durham County residents had clean water. She monitored the conditions of the county animal shelter and helped create the Durham Center for Senior Life, where line-dancing was her favorite activity. She also supported the Eno River Association for more than 45 years.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said Heron was about to be elected to the board when he was struggling to gain support for moving county meetings to the evenings. The time switch would allow for more citizens to attend. 

“Becky said, ‘You just wait until I get there,’” Bell said. “As gracious and respectful as she could be, she also could be feisty, in a nice way.”

Mike Ruffin, who recently retired as county manager, said in his 39 years as a public official, he never met anyone quite like Heron. When they first crossed paths at a 1984 D.C. conference, she was a “ball of fire.”

When Ruffin was fired at the end of 2004 after an argument between commissioners, Heron fought hard to help him regain his position, in which he was eventually reappointed.

“You could depend on her and you could depend on her word,” Ruffin said. “That was Becky.”

If she didn’t like you, you knew it. Heron didn’t play games, colleagues said. She never hesitated to pick up the phone and voice her concerns over a county or city issue.

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said she first saw Heron campaigning in 1982. Having just met, Heron had convinced Reckhow to help her pass out fliers.

Years later, Heron would persuade Reckhow to run for a seat on the planning commission, then later as a county commissioner. 

“Becky was very persuasive,” Reckhow said.

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said she was a Duke student in the 1980s when she first heard of Heron’s influence. Jacobs began to cry Saturday as she recalled Heron’s “sheer force of nature.”

“Becky was one of the first people who asked me to run for office,” Jacobs said. “She didn’t just ask me to run for county commissioner. She asked me to run for her seat, and I was deeply honored.”

“She wasn’t ‘Commissioner Heron’ to anyone,” she added. “She was ‘Becky.’”