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January 2010

Thorp: Jonathan Howes embodies town-gown relationship

We gave a reception earlier this month for Jonathan Howes, who is retiring from the university after nearly 40 years of service. Jonathan's most recent role at Carolina was as special assistant to the chancellor for community affairs, and I can't think of a better example of the title matching the man. As a former mayor of Chapel Hill and longtime director of the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies, Jonathan embodied the very spirit of town-gown relations.

In 1997, Jonathan's unique experience made him the natural choice to guide the development of a new campus master plan, and to involve everyone, town and gown, in the process. His leadership through the many months of committee meetings, workshops and presentations was inclusive and masterful. More recently, Jonathan contributed his wisdom and experience to the university's planning process for Carolina North as a member of its steering committee.

During the development of the campus master plan and the planning process for Carolina North, something exciting happened: The town-gown relationship grew up. We realized that each entity held value for the other. We needed to be partners, and we do that now better than we ever have and -- I believe -- better than every other college town in America. That never would have happened without Jonathan Howes.

Jonathan has been a Chapel Hill fixture for so long, you might take him for a native, but East Tennessee claims that honor. He did get his first graduate degree here, in regional planning, in 1961. He spent the next decade farther north, partly in Washington working for what is now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and later as director of Urban America Inc., and at Harvard University, where he earned a master's degree in public administration.

But in 1970, one of his former UNC professors called to see if he would be interested in returning to Chapel Hill to lead the new Center for Urban and Regional Studies. He was and he did. He and his wife, Mary, have been in Chapel Hill ever since.

But Jonathan didn't just teach about city planning. He lived it. In addition to serving on various boards, he was elected to three terms on Town Council, beginning in 1975. He then ran for mayor and was elected twice, serving from 1987 to 1991. Under his leadership, the Town Council built a new town hall and library, preserved many acres of greenways, parklands and open space and entered into joint planning agreements with UNC, Carrboro, Orange County and Durham.

With his term as mayor ending, Jonathan was tapped by Gov. Jim Hunt in his third administration to lead what was then the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources. As secretary from 1993 to 1997, Jonathan oversaw the passage of a $35 million state parks bond referendum and legislation that established a dedicated source of funding for state parks. He also obtained $31 million from the General Assembly to build a new Museum of Natural Sciences and formally establish an Office of Environmental Education to strengthen educational programs for the North Carolina Zoo and aquariums.

His appreciation for the environment led him to become involved in the N.C. Botanical Garden, where he served two terms as president of its foundation. His name and Mary's grace the bridge of the garden's new Education Center, a bridge that connects the center's public rooms to its classrooms. I can't think of a more fitting tribute than that.

Not only will Jonathan not be forgotten, he's not even gone. Not really. You'll see him at the garden, at Carol Woods, at Rotary Club meetings and cheering on his grandchildren at various school sporting events, not to mention his beloved Tar Heels in the Dean Dome. In retirement, Citizen Howes will continue to live out the motto he kept on his office wall, the ancient Athenian oath of citizenship: to "transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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