On Friday, April 5 at 1pm, a big crowd gathered at Umstead Park. We were there to celebrate Jim Huegerich’s life and to dedicate a bench in his honor.

Town of Chapel Hill

As an old-timer in Chapel Hill, I was thrilled to reconnect with folks who worked for the town years ago and who came to honor their friend, but I was equally excited to meet some of the new Chapel Hill leaders and employees, and to find out that many had been mentored and initiated in public service by the great Jim Huegerich.

What we all realized was that each of us knew a little part of Jim, but nobody knew how large his local community really was and what an incredible impact he had during his 37 years working for our town.

We started the celebration at the shelter at Umstead Park. Jim’s wife Tricia and his adult children and grandchildren—some all the way from NY—thanked the people who helped make this tribute possible. They also thanked the many folks who in the past two years have shared their stories about how Jim helped them. His family had never realized just how heavy a load he carried and how many people he touched.

Jim started and nurtured the Chapel Hill Police Department Crisis Unit, a ground-breaking, nationally-recognized model of how a PD can respond with trained social workers and other professionals who can offer people help and hope at a time of crisis. State Senator Graig Meyer spoke about his training as a newly minted social worker under Jim, and how he learned that even in the darkest and most terrible situations, life and beauty could be affirmed.

We heard from former judge, Carrboro Poet Laureate and close friend Jay Bryant how Jim had chickens and a garden (right in Chapel Hill); how he walked or biked to work every day, and about his love for nature. We heard from another close friend and retired Town Lawyer Ralph Karpinos about Jim’s work both for the Police Department and later as the Town ombudsman. Ralph said Jim was “the closest thing this town ever had to a chaplain.” Jim was always there to encourage, to support, to help, to mediate. And to share bad jokes and puns.

After members of the family and community shared their stories of Jim, Len Cone  (Transportation Demand Community Manager for the Town of Chapel Hill) announced more greenways infrastructure is about to be installed in honor of Huegerich.

Jim’s granddaughter, Abby, has raised $6,000 to honor her grandfather’s leadership of “Veterans on the Go,” a program he named and led to help service members transition to civilian life by helping them overcome transportation challenges. This money will be used to install new bike parking that will honor veterans. That installation will happen at the end of April and will be celebrated with a community bike ride.

After partaking of healthy snacks and beautiful flowery cupcakes and drinks, we set off on foot down the greenway to Jim’s bench, which was described in the Town’s news release:

The bench features red poppies, which were Huegerich’s favorite flowers. The flowers, bench, and tubing have a “whisper” function: people sitting on the bench can whisper into one flower and listen on the other as the piping carries the sound. The bench was created by nationally known sculptor Jim Gallucci, based on input from the Huegerich family.

The bench is located across Umstead Drive from the park, almost at the corner with Martin Luther King Boulevard, a .6mile distance, which we walked while sharing memories of Jim. It is the perfect spot to admire the creek, look at the beautiful trees, or take a break while on the greenway. Chief Matt Sullivan spoke of Jim’s remarkable influence, and other town leaders added their praises.

It is clear that Jim will not be forgotten in Chapel Hill. The bench is but a small reminder of the incredible legacy he leaves behind.

Related: A bike ride to honor Jim Huegerich

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Before being elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2013, María served as Orange County (NC) Human Rights Commissioner and as a member of the NC State Board of Education (appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt,...