Writer, poet, teacher, musician, and traveler Bill Holm, of Minneota, Minnesota, died on Wednesday, February 25, in Sioux Falls, S.D., after being stricken with pneumonia. He 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. His work was many times adapted for theater, radio, and TV productions, as well as for the many public lectures and concerts he presented in places as far-flung as Alaska and Madagascar.
About six and a half feet tall and red-haired, he once played the Giant in a production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Both before and after his death, he has been repeatedly referred to as a literary giant. And for the magnitude of his enthusiasms and expressions, many of his friends and acquaintances considered him a gigantic personality with gigantic appetites for good art, public honesty, and social justice.
Born William Jon Holm on August 25, 1943, to William and Jona (Jonina Josephson) Holm, who were Swede Prairie farmers, he received his education in the Minneota schools, in the public library, and in the homes of his parents’ friends, wherever he could find books to devour. He graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1965, then did four years of graduate work at the University of Kansas before accepting his first full-time teaching job at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. After his mother’s death in 1975, he returned to Minnesota, and served as writer in residence for two years at Lakewood Community College.
In 1979, Bill was awarded a Fulbright Grant to teach American literature in Iceland,
returning in 1980 to teach at Southwest Minnesota State University, from which he retired in 2007. His first two books, The Music of Failure and Boxelder Bug Variations, were published in 1985.
In 1986, he was appointed to a faculty exchange position in Xi’an, China, and in 1992, he spent a term teaching literature in Wuhan, China. Other books followed nearly every year, including his Minneota memoir The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth (1996) and his most recent book, The Windows of Brimnes (Brimnes is the name of the cottage he purchased in Hofsos, Iceland).
During these productive years, his work earned much recognition, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Bush Fellowships, a Minnesota Book Award, the Cobb Award for Service to Iceland, an honorary doctorate from Gustavus Adolphus College, and in 2008, the prestigious McKnight Distinguished Artist Award.
From 1966 to 1974, Bill was married to Judy Carey (of Willmar, Minnesota), who still resides in Hampton, Virginia. While in China in 1986-87, he met Marcella Brekken (of Audubon, Minnesota), who joined him in Minneota after her return from China. They were married in 2006.
Many of Bill’s students idolized him, not only for his literary prowess and his wide-ranging intellect, but also for his enthusiasms for books and music, and for his kindness and generosity.
Minneota neighbors recognized him as a person who was knowledgeable, entertaining, and supportive of the community. But his sense of community was broad, and readers and acquaintances all over Minnesota considered him one of their own. One commented online, “It is hard to imagine SW Minnesota without Bill Holm.”
News of his death brought phone calls from all over the country, and from abroad. His readers have always felt energized by his writings, which preach the virtues of careful attention, spiritual energy, integrity, and civic responsibility. He saw himself as a missionary out to turn back the forces of narrow-mindedness and selfishness. His personal generosity extended from the smallest of courtesies, to personal loans to friends suffering setbacks, to financial contributions to community causes, to hours of effort in support of public projects, to underwriting Chinese students’ entry to the United States. He did countless benefit concerts and lectures for charitable institutions and arts organizations. When it came to efforts to improve the vigor of society, he could be counted on.
He generated admiration, respect, affection, and amusement all in good measure, largely because his enthusiasm and commitment could hardly be contained within his sizeable frame and bright red face. No fan of timidity or moderation, he brought prodigious energy to everything he did. As one friend said, “He spent his whole life with his foot firmly on the accelerator.”
Whenever he hit the brakes, it was usually to call attention to one thing or another that most of us had overlooked. His friend Bharat Pant described him this way: “He was the Poet Laureate of Failure, not in the sense that it is commonly understood, but in the sense that he saw that the line between fallen heroes and those who rise to fame and fortune is razor thin. That gain and loss, and victory and defeat, are two sides of the same coin, and you cannot judge a person simply from his outward shine, but must look more deeply inside. His works were full of such characters—outwardly ordinary but with rich inner lives. I came half way across the world from the mountains of North India and found reflections of my people in Bill's writings. For this I am deeply grateful to Bill.”
And thousands of people whose lives Bill touched with his understanding of the complexity of ordinary life, and of the need we all have for praise, encouragement, and sympathy, share that gratitude.
He is survived by his wife Marcella Brekken, his cousin Daren Gislason, his books, and many other cousins by birth or by choice.
Bill Holm’s funeral is scheduled for Sunday, March 8 at 2:30, at St.Paul’s Lutheran Church in Minneota, Minnesota. Visitation will be from 4:00-8:00 on Saturday, March 7, at the Rehkamp-Horvath Funeral Home in Minneota.