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Man About Town: John Schelp

By Colleen Chandler
September 2005

Durham's Real Estate listing
(Photo by Blondell Peterson)

John Schelp, it seems, is everywhere you look in the media lately.

Aug. 27, it was the Durham Herald Sun Grit Award. In July, it was a listing in Towerview's "10 people to watch" and the cover of the real estate section of the News & Observer. As if that's not enough, he was named "Tarheel of the Week" in March 2003 by the News and Observer, and along with other members of his housing association, got another Grit Award in 2000.

Schelp is shown in the July 30 edition of the News & Observer sitting on the steps in front of his Durham home, which was constructed from a catalog kit sold by Sears, Robuck and Co. Everything for the house, with the exception of bricks and mortar but including light fixtures and doorknobs, were delivered by rail for construction on-site. The house is now adorned with a plaque from the Historic Preservation Society of Durham. But it was Schelp's own digging through historical records that nailed down the home's history. It was built by Mamie Norwood in 1928.

According to local historians, Sears catalog homes were very high quality, but not many are found in the South, since building materials and cheap labor made it at least as affordable to hire locals to build such homes.

It was Schelp's suggestion to a Durham official that landed him the 2005 Grit Award. Schelp was on jury duty at the Durham courthouse when the idea struck him. As fellow jurors, about 200 of them, planned to go to lunch, the jury clerk was only able to suggest one restaurant - the diner in the basement of the courthouse. Jurors are allowed e-mail access, and from the jury room, Schelp e-mailed the executive director of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau. He suggested maps of restaurants that could be posted in the jury rooms that would likely generate a good bit of business for downtown restaurants. Sure enough, a brochure entitled "Get Seated for Lunch: A Downtown Durham Dining Guide for Jurors," listing 40 restaurants within a reasonable distance to the courthouse has been created. Schelp said that the jury clerk will also include information about the listing in her orientation for jurors, and a link to the list of restaurants now appears on the jury room computer screensavers.

Towerview, a monthly publication of the The Chronicle, an independent daily newspaper at Duke University, listed Schelp as "The Boy Next Door," or number 10 on a list of people to watch. The July 20 publication praises Schelp for his drive and commitment to improving his community for the people who live there.

Schelp is president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association. It was his actions in that capacity that earned him the first Grit Award in 2000. After receiving an e-mail from a man in another state hoping to find information about an ancestor believed to be buried in Durham, Schelp began digging into public records to find out information about the Erwin Mills Cemetery adjacent to his neighborhood. As he located the cemetery, he and his newfound friend organized a cleanup to remove debris that had piled up in the abandoned cemetery that served as the final resting place for many employees of Erwin Cotton Mills.

The News & Observer, March 3, 2002 edition, named Schelp Tar Heel of the Week for his community activism. But activism may not be the correct work. It's more like proactivism. Schelp gets involved in the process, using his knowledge of how government works and what documents and records are available as public resources. He's clearly not shy, and when it comes to safeguarding his community's well-being, he does not hesitate.

Among the victories, he has led his neighbors in creating an identify for - even naming and posting a sign with the name - the Old West Durham Neighborhood and creating a web site to tout its history, events, and to create awareness of upcoming issues. The web site started out as a source of information for the neighbors, but Schelp said he gets e-mails from people all over the country inquiring about availability of houses in the neighborhood and asking for information about the area. Schelp has received a variety of local and state historical awards for the site, even a "local legacy" award from the Library of Congress. Schelp will receive another award Oct. 8 in Ashville from the North Carolina Historical Association.

Schelp served as chairman of the NAACP's community committee. He and two other white people were featured in The Crisis, the NAACP's national magazine, fall 2003 issue, for his role as second vice president of the Durham branch. He also thwarted city plans to build asphalt plants in poor Durham neighborhoods, and successfully influenced businessmen and developers to modify their construction plans so their projects would better blend into the existing community architecture. Among those project was the construction of an apartment complex that has the highest density in the Triangle. He rallied members of the community to challenge attempts by Duke University to expand retail businesses on campus. Those businesses would have been exempt from property taxes. Schelp said he believes those businesses belong in Durham instead of on campus. While it is not yet a done deal, Schelp is confident he has achieved his objective.

Schelp said his interest in such projects started some 20 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Congo. For him, he said, seeing that kind of abject poverty created a very clear sense of right and wrong. Schelp has been at NIEHS since 1991. He is currently special assistant to the director of DRCPT. He has a bachelor's degree in political science and French from St. Lawrence University and a master's degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.

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