Celebrating the life of Bill Holm
Mon, 02/25/2019 - 9:57am admin
•It's 10 years since the death of the man they called the "Polar Bear of American Literature".
Scott Thoma, Mascot Staff Writer
It was 10 years ago this past Sunday, Feb. 25 that the “Polar Bear of American Literature”, as Bill Holm was labeled by one poet because of his size and stature, passed away unexpectedly. He was 65.
“I still hear his voice when I read his work, as if he is right here,” said Minneota native Dana Yost, a former journalist and editor who is now an author and poet.
Holm won numerous awards in his illustrious career, including the McKnight Distinguished Artist of the Year in 2008. For his service to Icelanders, he earned the Sue M. Cobb Exemplary Diplomatic Service Award in 2003. And he was also awarded the Distinguished Alumni Citation in 2002 from Gustavus Adolphus College, where he also earned an honorary doctorate.
Holm was described by some friends and associates as “controversial”, “political” and “opinionated.” But nearly all agree he was “gifted” as a writer, poet, musician, essayist, historian, and professor.
“I think of Bill frequently,” said Sandy Josephson. “And I am sad that he isn't still with us sharing his amazing talent and ways to look at life. No matter where I saw him, he always took time to talk to any and every one.”
William Jon Holm was born on Aug. 25, 1943 to Williams and Jona Holm. He was the grandson of Icelandic immigrants.
After graduating from Minneota High School, he attended Gustavus Adolphus, graduating there in 1965. That was followed by four years of graduate work at the University of Kansas.
He later returned to Minneota, but often traveled across the country and to other countries, including annual trips to Iceland, which he referred to as his “second home”.
A couple days prior to Holm's death, Sandy's parents, Alan and Marlene, had spoken to him on the telephone while he was “snowbirding” in Arizona.
“Mom had heard Bill’s awful cough and suggested that he should go to a doctor,” Sandy recalls. “The rest is history.”
After returning from Arizona, Holm collapsed shortly after his plane landed at the airport in Sioux Falls. He later died from complications of pneumonia. Holm’s health had been poor for several months prior to his death, with heart problems compounded by pneumonia.
Holm had published 16 books and many pamphlets, magazine articles, and other writings in the United States, and was a contributor to numerous publications in China, Sweden, Iceland, and elsewhere. Much of his work was adapted for theater, radio and television productions.
Holm was as big of a presence physically as he was talented; standing about 6-foot-6 with mismanaged hair, a bushy beard and a resounding laugh. He is still referred to as a literary giant.
“What Bill meant to me as a writer was that he showed me it's okay to step out of your comfort zone, to write more freely and from the heart,” said Yost, who had Holm as an instructor in a literature class.
“I did that more and more with my newspaper human interest features and feature columns, but it also helped me when I started writing poetry.”
Gail Perrizo first met Holm when she was an English major at SMSU and Holm was her professor.
“Bill’s poetry writing classes were ones where you could be comfortable experimenting in getting the right words on paper,” she recalled. “We learned that our writing got better as we worked on it more. Things needed to be rewritten again and again. That was the process that he instilled in his students.”
She and her late husband, Tom Guttormsson, eventually became close friends with Holm when they moved next door to him. It was then that they played cards, had meals, and had many interesting discussions together over the years.
“He cooked wonderful meals and would have us over often,” Perrizo said. “We talked about poetry, politics, jokes, stories, ancestry and genealogy. Everything was discussed around that kitchen table. And when Marcy came into Bill’s life, the four of us did a lot of things together and had a lot of fun.
“Another magical thing about living next door to Bill, especially in the summer, was hearing him play the piano. Whatever he was interested in at the moment would come wafting out the windows. He was such a gifted pianist.
Holm entertained many people at his home, expected guests and unexpected arrivals.
“Oh, the people we met through Bill,” Perrizo told. “He had so many friends and introduced us to so many people.
“Our lives were truly enriched by him. People would seek Bill out, and there were many times we’d be at Bill’s place when some strangers would arrive to visit him. We met many Icelanders who visited Minneota just because we happened to be sitting at Bill’s table when they knocked on the door.”
Alan Josephson remembers Bill as “Little Billy”.
“He was an only child and the center of his parents’ lives,” Alan noted. “His father was a farmer, and Bill had nothing to do with the farm. His love of books came from listening to discussions with the other Icelanders who would visit with his parents.
“The old Icelanders were well-read people, and I know much of the vast library in Jona’s house in Minneota had volumes of books written in Icelandic.”
Gayle Van Vooren knew Holm for many years and wrote about him when she worked at the Mascot.
“Bill was larger than life,” she said. “He was very confident, full of stories, and intimidating.
“As a musician, he was fantastic. He would attack the piano, turning a familiar sacred piece of music to a jazz/rag number one could hardly recognize.”
When news hit Minneota that Holm has passed away, many were in disbelief because he was always so full of life.
“I remember clearly the day that he died,” said Sandy Josephson. “Ortonville, where I taught for 30 years, had no school that day because of the snow.
“I decided to check my computer and saw a reference on Facebook to Bill's dying when he got off the plane in Sioux Falls; coming home from his typical winter escape to write. He had spent some time (in Arizona) with my Uncle Chuck and Uncle Les.
“About the same time, my sister in Mankato saw the same information and called me. We were both in disbelief. This couldn't be the Bill we knew.”
Yost, too, remembers the day he heard about Holm's death.
“I just felt sad right away; and emptiness,” he said. “After all Bill had written and said; there would be no more. That's a serious loss.”
Perrizo was attending church services in the morning and had just returned home to shovel snow when she heard the news from Bill’s wife, Marcy Brekken.
“It was devastating news,” Perrizo said. “And news I was not ready to hear.
“I called Tom at the school, which was something I didn’t usually do. I wanted him to know about Bill from me, before he heard it on the radio. Then I went to be with Marcy. I did shovel snow that day, but I was sobbing the whole time I was shoveling.”
VanVooren noted that the Mascot was thrown into a panic because then-publisher Jon Guttormsson’s son, Kevin, had passed away around the same time.
“Dana Yost came over from Marshall to help with all the work that needed to be done,” she said. “The community was rocked by both deaths so close together.”
Holm was a devoted Democrat and many remember that he had no time for Republicans unless it was to get into a deep political discussion with them. He wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion because he was confident his way was the right way.
“I think we need his voice today,” Yost remarked. “There’s much – from politics to social media to the corruption in big business that barely blink at selling or giving away our private data – that Bill would have something to say on; something that would make us react and make us think.
“Bill had a way to get quickly to the core of an issue in such a way that you had to pay attention to him. Bill would listen, think through an issue, but then he’s say his piece. And it was often a heckuva piece; one you would have a hard time countering.”
One of Bill’s published books, “Boxelder Bug Variations: had a big influence on Minneota, which changed its annual town celebration to Boxelder Bug Days. Bill returned to his hometown many times to assist with the bug races.
“Bill is and was an authentic Minneota character,” VanVooren remarked. “The community accepted him as the bigger-than-life character that he was, but I never felt we gave him enough recognition.
“He loved Minneota and the characters that he knew and wrote about. And I believe he often came back (to Minneota) to rest and just be himself. I respected him for the talented, intellectual man that he was, and was upset that he died so young. But he lived life to the fullest, on his terms, and left a very strong legacy in many parts of the world.”