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Former council member Charlye Heggins dies

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Former Denton City Council member Charlye Heggins died Wednesday night after a long battle with cancer. She was 80.

Heggins served three terms, from 2005 to 2011, as the representative from District 1. During the final months of her last term, she advocated naming the city’s new pedestrian bridge over Loop 288 for civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. She helped a Southeast Denton park to be named for the late Carl Gene Young Sr., another former District 1 council member, and pushed for the recent renaming of Civic Center Park for Quakertown, the black community forced to move from the land in the 1920s in order to create the park.

As of press time, funeral services at Morse Street Baptist Church and interment at Laurel Land in Dallas were still being planned, according to Heggins’ son, James Fonteno. Peoples Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

In January 2009, Heggins was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a type of kidney cancer. She later formed a support group for cancer patients and their families that still meets on the first Thursday of each month at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center. It wasn’t until that year that many people in Denton learned Heggins had been diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 40 years earlier.

Longtime friend Betty Kimble said that back then, friends noticed that, from time to time, Heggins would disappear for a week. Eventually, her closest friends learned she was going for treatment for breast cancer.

“Back then, people didn’t talk about cancer,” Kimble said, adding, “Usually, they just died.”

After learning of her second cancer diagnosis, Heggins was much more open about her illnesses, both present and past, said Alma Clark, another longtime friend who also is a breast cancer survivor.

“That’s when she really started talking about her breast cancer,” Clark said.

Heggins moved to Denton in 1972 with her husband, the late Rev. Edell Heggins, who came to be the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church. A talented singer and pianist, Charlye Heggins served alongside her husband as the church musician for many years at churches in Denton and Oklahoma.

She began playing piano for church services when she was 12 years old. She played by ear and, at first, she could only accompany a singer, the choir or the congregation, in the key of C. Eventually, Heggins learned to play in any key. She could often accompany someone after they sang a few bars, Clark said.

Heggins also volunteered to play at other churches and was known to fill in for a funeral service when the regular musician was at work, Clark said.

At a convention for city leaders in Orlando, Fla., several years ago, Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs watched Heggins sit down at a piano in the foyer and start to play.

“She gathered such a crowd,” Burroughs said.

With barriers broken, she could start conversations, make friends and do her part to represent Denton and its residents’ interests.

“She understood how to do that very well,” Burroughs said.

Her vibrancy and positive, can-do spirit often served the City Council well during some difficult votes, he said.

“Often, she was the glue that held us together,” Burroughs said.

Heggins frequently voted with the rest of the council, but she wasn’t afraid to stand alone on some issues. As she finished her final term in 2011, she told the Denton Record-Chronicle that she stuck to her guns in voting.

In 2008, she cast the only vote against a plan to build a city water tank in a wooded area south of Denia Park. In 2009, she was the only council member to vote against the controversial natural gas well site at Rayzor Ranch — a vote that former council member Chris Watts said, in an interview earlier this month, wouldn’t likely pass the City Council if it were held today.

Heggins graduated from Phillips Business College in Dallas in 1952 and attended what was then Prairie View A&M College the following year. From 1984 to 2004, she served as the nutrition coordinator for the Special Programs for Aging Needs in Denton.

She served on several city committees during her council service including the Ethics Committee, the Audit Committee, the Council Appointee Performance Review Committee and the Property Maintenance Code Committee. She also served on the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Community Justice Council.

Despite her modest resources, Heggins also was a tireless community volunteer, Clark said. Both she and Kimble said they hustled to Heggins’ side in recent weeks thinking she was very ill — “she was calling everyone in town,” Clark said — only to find her sitting up and making plans again.

Heggins wanted to put together a sesquicentennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation for September.

Heggins was instrumental in establishing Denton’s Black History Month and Kwanzaa celebrations, had served as secretary for the Denton County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, chairwoman of the Juneteenth Committee Gospel Extravaganza, on the advisory board for Fred Moore High School and as a board member for the Greater Denton Arts Council.

She was a supporter of Keep Denton Beautiful; a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Sickle Cell Advisory group, the BIONIC ministry of Morse Street Baptist Church; and a volunteer for the Rocking Reader program at The Gonzalez School for Young Children.

Heggins also participated in the Ms. Mature Denton pageants. Another longtime friend, Dorothy Minter, said Heggins talked her into participating in the second year of the pageants. That year, in 1998, Minter won and Heggins took second place. But a few years later, in 2002, Heggins won, and went on to win Ms. Texas Senior, and Ms. Congeniality and second runner-up in Ms. American Classic.

Heggins’ tenacity served her well, said former Denton Mayor Euline Brock. Brock recalled that Heggins worked to have Loop 288 named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but was not successful.

“Sometimes she just didn’t have the backing, but she just kept plugging away,” Brock said. “It’s particularly appropriate that we are about to dedicate that bridge. She would have really enjoyed that.”

The city will formally dedicate the Loop 288 pedestrian bridge for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on June 14, at the beginning of the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

For the next generation, Heggins’ shoes are big, but not impossible to fill.

Colette Johnson, president of the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association, said she had known Heggins since she was a young girl. She watched Heggins work hard to help the neighborhood, especially when progress stalled or residents were at odds about what to do next.

“She helped us through a lot of situations,” Johnson said.

The next generation has to keep up the fight for the neighborhood, and part of that is getting younger people involved, Johnson said.

Council member Kevin Roden succeeded Heggins as the representative for District 1 after she finished her third term. By the city’s charter, council members are not allowed to serve more than three consecutive terms.

Heggins’ legacy reminds him to listen to those who don’t have a voice, Roden said.

“When you’re on City Council, you get surrounded by a lot of ‘important’ people,” Roden said. “She had a great compass about who to listen to and who to serve.”

Roden continues to think about her advice, and her occasional demands, as his reminder of how to best serve the district and the city.

“That’s really what her legacy was about,” Roden said.

To her son, James Fonteno, of Richardson, though, Heggins will always be a mother first.

“I know she wore many hats, but to me, she’ll always be a mom,” Fonteno said.

As a teen, when the family was living in Dallas, he had a friend who didn’t have a mother, so Fonteno went to Heggins and asked whether he could share her. She agreed, and after that, he was a happy guy, Fonteno said.

“She taught me how to love — brothers, sisters, community, even the adversities in life,” Fonteno said. “She taught me to displace — what was mine was not to own, but to share.”

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.