Dave Otto, a renowned researcher on the effects of lead and arsenic exposure on humans, and a historian and photographer who charted Carrboro’s earliest years, died on December 4 of lung cancer.

At the December 5th Town Council meeting, outgoing mayor Damon Seils remembered Otto for the “great work he [had] done in the community over many years.” That included his roles on the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Committee, the Carolina North Advisory Committee, and the Carrboro Greenways Commission. He also was an active participant and documenter of the Moral Mondays protests at the NCGA, and was arrested alongside other members of the United Church of Chapel Hill.

An advocate for accessibility throughout Carrboro

Otto was a founder of Friends of Bolin Creek and co-chair of the organization for its first eight years. In those roles, he was both a strong advocate for the preservation of the Bolin Creek corridor as well as a strong advocate for a paved greenway along Bolin Creek in Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

“The bitter irony for me today is even though I live right on the creek, I can barely get down to the creek anymore,” he said at a March 2023 council meeting.

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Dave Otto featured in a June 3, 1976 piece in The Daily Tar Heel advocating for greenways.

Otto began Friends of Bolin Creek with the primary idea of protecting the creek and continuing the greenway. He was a strong advocate for making the greenway a place for all: strollers, wheelchairs, bikes, skaters, and pedestrians.

“I know how much he wanted the greenway because he wanted his two disabled daughters (who both predeceased him  in their 30s) to be able to enjoy the natural environment in their literal backyard,” said Bruce Sinclair, one of his neighbors. “Before passing, he expressed to me personally and also to the Town Council that one of his biggest regrets was that he would never get to use the greenway for which he so ardently advocated. And to me, he expressed his happiness that progress on the greenways had been unblocked and expressed gratitude to all of the people who helped keep the greenway concept alive for sixteen years and to those who participated in the final push to get it restarted; wanting them to make sure that they were aware of his gratitude.”

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Dave Otto speaking at the June 27, 2023 town council meeting in favor of the greenway.

Otto led frequent walks along the creek and raised funds to protect it. When he came out in favor of paving a 10-foot-wide paved path in the existing sewage easement, so that the path was more accessible and could protect the fragile riparian zone from footsteps, he was ousted from Friends of Bolin Creek. (Notably, they published an obituary that omits this fact.)

Professionally, Otto authored more than 100 papers in neurotoxicology. He graduated from Harvard and Stanford, and spent four years in the U.S. Navy before joining the Environmental Protection Agency, where he spent 35 years researching the effects of arsenic and lead exposure on humans.

After he retired, Otto turned his attention to the environment, photography, and history. With Richard Ellington, he co-authored a book on the history of Carrboro, tracing its history in time for the 2011 centennial celebration. He also focused on photography, contributing images of flora and fauna to the Carrboro Citizen, and advocated heavily for the health of Bolin Creek and providing more access to it. He was a founding member of Advocates for Carrboro Greenways.

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Dave Otto took photos for the Carrboro Citizen of flowers. This one was captioned: “Flowers of wild azalea light up the forest before their tender leaves emerge.”

Otto loved playing the piano and singing with his church choir, which he joined in 1973. He is survived by his wife Apolonia San Juan and two stepsons, Rafael and Rodolfo (Theresa). He was predeceased by his first wife Priscilla Otto and his daughters Meghan and Eileen.

A memorial service will be held on January 6 at 2pm at the United Church of Chapel Hill , 1321 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.

Thank you to Bruce Sinclair, Damon Seils, and Emily Weinstein for contributing to this obituary.

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....