She managed political campaigns, taught English to refugees, worked to bridge cultural divides, served on boards, consulted with nonprofits, led meditation groups and otherwise touched hundreds of lives, but when her time came, Julie Lapham wanted to go quietly without public recognition or accolades.
The Greensboro community leader, who managed Yvonne Johnson’s successful campaign for mayor in 2007, took her own life on Dec. 11 while visiting in Virginia. She was 69.
“She was so dedicated to a number of causes in the area and basically watching out for those who were downtrodden and didn’t have a voice,” said the Rev. Julie Peeples, the senior pastor at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro. “She was very serious about being a mentor to younger women. She was passionate. She was a fighter. I just always knew that at certain causes and certain efforts I would see Julie there. She had a really deep sense of justice and watching out for the rights of everyone.”
As news of Lapham’s death trickled onto Facebook last week, civic leaders, friends and other acquaintances reacted with stunned disbelief, trying to make sense of her passing and to figure out the best way to honor her legacy.
Lynne Robinson, the executor of Lapham’s estate, said her friend left a note that said, “I do not want a ceremony whereby I am remembered nor do I want to be pressed into a box with a marker. Let me be free to fly and swim in rivers.”
Lapham was born and raised in England, and emigrated to the United States to work in polymer chemistry, according to a biography posted by the UNCG Center for New North Carolinians, where she was recently employed. But a severe industrial accident halted a promising career in chemistry, and sent Lapham on an altogether different path. The experience led to a lifelong study of consciousness states and a life devoted to social justice causes to empower women, immigrants and other groups.
“She already knew about death and dying, and I think that she had planned to do this for years, and it was time,” Robinson said. “She was determined that she wouldn’t be a burden to anyone and that ‘when the time comes I’m going to know.’ When you listen to that, you slough that off. I will never, ever slough that off again. It’s important that we need to sit down and think about what that means. Not you’re going to change their mind.”
Lapham had been planning to have her hip replaced at the time of her death
Lamar Gibson, a fundraiser for the Renaissance Community Co-op, said when he saw Lapham recently at a community meeting at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church she was experiencing a lot of physical pain, but was in good spirits.
“Julie, she will usually say a joke about something crappy happening and say, ‘I’m all right,’” Gibson recalled. “This was, ‘I’m in a lot of physical pain.’ She did describe the drama and the messiness around waiting for a specialist to do the surgery and there were only two in the state, so there was logistics of whether she would go to Charlotte or some place else.”
Raleigh Bailey, director emeritus at the UNCG Center for New North Carolinians, said Lapham had recently been working in an English-language program for newly arrived refugees as an AmeriCorps member.
“She was very concerned about he refugee population and how they adapted once they got here,” Johnson said.
About two years ago, Bailey said, Lapham served with the UNCG Women’s Health and Wellness Center through her AmeriCorps position. Susan Danielsen, spokesperson for the Greensboro Police Department, said Lapham worked with the department on its child response and violence against women initiatives.
Lapham abandoned her chemistry career in 1979, after her accident, and went to Washington, DC to work on the Equal Rights Amendment campaign. She later served as executive director of Common Cause Virginia, where she advocated for tougher state laws to regulate campaign finance, and earned a doctorate degree from Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Johnson recalled that she met Lapham before running for mayor in 2007.
“She came to my office and introduced herself, and said she had heard a lot of things about me and wanted to help me,” Johnson said. “She had been involved in campaigns in Richmond, [Va.] and other places. She had worked with the National Organization of Women. She was an organizer.”
Lapham became Johnson’s campaign manager.
“She was very good at that,” Johnson said. “She was able to analyze, for example, where I got the most votes, and where I didn’t get so many votes. And then she would come up with a strategy for improving that.”
Johnson won the election, and became Greensboro’s first African-American mayor.
Two years later, in 2009, Lapham traded her behind-the-scenes role for the spotlight as an at-large candidate for Greensboro City Council. She said in an e-mail to an anti-racist working group that she perceived a local echo of racially-tinged attacks on President Obama in criticism of Johnson, and said for that reason she had “decided to step up and become a candidate for city council.”
“We have to know where to go to listen to people,” Lapham said in a 2009 candidate forum. “That’s not easy in this town. This town has got a lot of little bubbles all over the place…. Listening is an absolutely crucial piece for what happens on city council. Otherwise we would have done it all by now. Basically, we don’t like change. We like to talk about it, but it’s mighty hard to adapt to. We’re in a world today where we need to adapt to change.”
Both Lapham and Johnson lost their elections that year, but Lapham helped Johnson regain a seat on city council in 2011 and 2013.
Johnson appointed Lapham to serve on the Greensboro Commission on the Status of Women.
Friends remember Lapham as determined, smart and outspoken.
“She had a way of saying the thing that people needed to hear,” Gibson said. “Sometimes it was tough things that needed to be heard. If she disagreed with you and she was your friend, she would let you know. Julie wasn’t born in the South and into our Southern system of manners and politeness and I don’t feel like she ever showed up to anything that I was at that she felt like she had to show this façade.”
Parallel to her involvement in civic affairs, Lapham also emerged as a peer leader in more spiritual pursuits.
“She helped a tremendous amount of people with her meditation workshops,” Robinson said. “It changed me completely.
“What a leader: If I ever had a problem I would call her and she would talk me through it,” Robinson continued. “She was my psychologist, my mother, you know, she was my go-to. She was my voice in my head. But she always kept you at arm’s length. That’s why she was so effective.”
Lapham’s many friends in various arenas are coming to terms with her loss in different ways.
“A lot of people are struggling with — ‘What could I do?’” Gibson said. “From talking with each other and sharing our memories of her together, that will at least help us through it. It’s hard not to do that when someone close to you takes their own life. I’ve dealt with this before when I was much younger. There’s that thing of, ‘Why didn’t they reach out to me?’ I think the only way we can increase the chances of people reaching out to us is reaching out to other people more.
“We internalize a lot of the suffering,” he continued. “We really don’t want to burden people with our pain and suffering. The other side of that is, can I trust you with my pain and suffering? Can I trust the community to help me get through it? So I think every chance we get, we should reach out to each other.”
Robinson said she doubts anyone could have talked Lapham out of her plan.
“She was of sound mind and was a determined person,” she said.
Robinson will remember her friend by a passage for the Tao Te Ching, which Lapham taught: “Thus the master is available to all people and doesn’t reject anyone. He is ready to use all situations and doesn’t waste anything. What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job? If you don’t understand this you will get lost, however intelligent you are. It is a great secret.”
Robinson said that one of Lapham’s meditation groups will continue at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro. The group meets every Monday from 6 to 8 p.m.
Bailey said Lapham’s AmeriCorps friends will honor her in a small, private gathering in January. He added that a larger, public event might be organized through UNCG at a later date.
Lapham will be buried in Virginia on Saturday, according to her wishes, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a shallow grave on a hillside so that her remains will go back to the earth. A handful of friends will be there.
Julie Lapham didn’t want a ceremony.
Donations in memoriam to Julie Lapham can be sent by check to the Women to Women endowment, c/o Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, 330 S. Greene St., Greensboro, NC 27401.