Julie Lapham, activist and meditation leader — 1944-2013
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.”
As news of Lapham’s death trickled onto Facebook last week, civic leaders, friends and other acquaintances reacted with stunned disbelief.
“It was an absolute shock to me, and I deal with it the best I can,” Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said on Monday. “We’re going to bury her on Saturday, and I’m going to go to Virginia to do that.”
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 immigrated 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.'” Lapham had been planning to undergo hip-replacement surgery at the time of her death.
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 Ameri-Corps member.
Lapham went to Washington, DC to work on the Equal Rights Amendment campaign in 1979, after her accident. 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 ran for city council herself as an at-large candidate.
Both Lapham and Johnson lost their elections that year, but Lapham helped Johnson regain a seat on city council in 2011 and 2013. During her single term as mayor, 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,” said Lamar Gibson, a fundraiser for the Renaissance Community Co-op. “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 faÃ§ade.”
Lapham also emerged as a peer leader in more spiritual pursuits.
“What a leader: If I ever had a problem I would call her and she would talk me through it,” Robinson said. “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”¦. 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.”
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.
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 with only a handful of friends in attendance.
She 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. !