Sunday, June 26, 2011

Durham’s Definitive 1970s Brain-Gain

I’ve always sensed the strength of the communities in which I’ve lived and worked by the number of people born there who stay or return but also by the number who come there to go to school or work and stay.

Those indicators are a sense of the depth and authenticity of a community’s soul.

Duke University is a private school with a huge reputation but a small student body, one of two major universities, along with 100-year-old North Carolina Central University, located in Durham, North Carolina.

While Duke’s appeal stretches around the globe, Durham is also one of the largest concentrations of Duke alumni who stay or return to call it home after they graduate. It is a key part of why Durham has a positive “brain-gain” compared to other communities.

During the two decades I headed the organization charged with defending and promoting Durham’s identity as a tool for visitor-centric economic and cultural development, I seemed to continually run into people who graduated from Duke in the 1970s who continue to this day to make a difference here.

As an example, here are just fifteen top-of-mind friends from the classes from the 1970s who have made such a difference here:

  • Bob Ashley – Who returned as Editor for the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper and is now an advocate for Durham’s sense of place as Executive Director of Preservation Durham.

  • Julia Borbely Brown – Co-founder of the then super-influential Durham Voters Alliance and now a long-time staffer and paralegal in the mortgage department at Self-Help a community development lender.

  • Tom Campbell – Former Durham City Council member and co-founder of the iconic Regulator Bookshop, an early anchor in the organic Ninth Street District and currently a mover behind the Sustain A Bull Shop Independent Durham movement.

  • Wib Gulley – Who went away for law school only to return to serve as two-term Mayor of Durham and long-time NC State Senator before becoming General Counsel for Triangle Transit Authority.

  • Jim Wise – Who stayed to become a journalist and columnist at the Durham Herald-Sun and now The Durham News. He is also an author of many books and an historian of Durham’s remarkable past.

Following in other classes of the 1970s were:

  • Lanier Blum – Former City Council member and champion of commuting by bicycle who is currently a residential developer at Self-Help Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

  • Jim Hardin Jr. – A Durham native who went away to law school after graduation from Duke and then returned to serve as Durham County District Attorney and now serves as a Resident Superior Court Judge for the State of North Carolina.

  • Lee Richardson – Who returned to participate in the political battles of the 1970s and 1980s that defined Durham’s future while rising to Vice President over Asia Pacific and Latin America at software giant SAS in Cary before becoming an active part of Durham’s visitor sector prior to his sudden passing last year.

  • Steve Schewel – Founder of the award-winning, investigative-reporting alternative newspaper The Independent Weekly which has grown to cover several counties around Durham; also a former School Board member and a current candidate for Durham City Council.

  • Alice Sharpe – A Durham native and African-American who stayed in her hometown after graduation as an activist for the revitalization of Downtown Durham and now serves as the Director of Development for the Durham County Library System.

  • Nick Tennyson – Former two-term Mayor of Durham, without whom the million-square-foot American Tobacco Complex may not have become a reality and an early proponent of “smart growth” and “green building” who is now head of the three-county Home Builders Association.

And epitomizing many drawn to Duke to teach in the 70s:

  • Judy Kincaid – Who came as a Duke law professor in the mid-70s and a champion of sustainability issues and then designed and managed award-winning programs at Triangle J Council of Governments before founding Clean Energy Durham, an emerging a national model for “neighbors helping neighbors save energy.”

There are many others I’m missing and others who matriculated in the ‘70s but graduated during the dawn of the following decade such as Mike Woodard, a friend currently serving on the Durham City Council.

Some such Tom Niemann, a friend who settled after graduation two decades later and with two-time national basketball champion basketball stars Brian Davis, who returned here briefly, and Christian Laettner forged the adaptive re-use of the huge West Village complex, the largest such project in North Carolina’s history.

But my thoughts today are about those remarkable classes of the 1970s and their contributions to Durham, they really “rock.”

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