In this life, a person may have several good teachers, but if one encounters a great teacher once or twice in a lifetime, that person is fortunate indeed. Those of us who had the privilege of learning at the feet of Ms. Julia Holthouser are among the fortunate because we truly experienced a great teacher. A good or mediocre teacher may be an expert in the subject matter, but have limited ability to motivate students to learn, or a good teacher may be able to motivate students to learn but not be on the cutting edge of her field.
A great teacher, however, is an expert in the subject matter and possesses a charisma that inspires students to strive to reach their highest potential. Ms. Holthouser was such a teacher, for she was excellent in both subject matter and inspiring students…and so much more. The “more” part was that she cared for students as whole persons, not just their intellects. When she taught a class, her face glowed with exuberance, revealing her passion for her subject – history. She brought history to life by telling us about the personal details, and sometimes the unsavory side, of historical characters, but she also made us aware of the larger social forces that shaped history and our present world.
Ms. Holthouser encouraged us to keep abreast of current events to understand how they were shaped by history and continue to shape our lives. She invited us to drink deeply from the fountain of knowledge and to understand the hidden forces beneath the surface events of society and culture. She taught us not just to memorize facts but to see the interconnections of facts and how they cause social stability or social change. A particular lesson that I recall from Western Civilization class was how Enlightenment philosophers, such as Locke, Voltare, and Montesque influenced our founding fathers to create our American experiment in democracy with a Bill of Rights for all.
Her discipline and reprimands in class were gentle and consisted mainly of a disappointed look that spoke louder than words. We knew what that look of disappointment meant when we turned in a poorly written paper or did sloppy work. It was really saying: “I expect more of you because I know you have the ability to do better.” That look didn’t crush our self-esteem but moved us to want to do better to gain her approval and to develop our own potentials.
Ms. Holthouser’s dedication to her students was seen in her frequent attendance at school functions and sporting events. More than once, I saw her at a sporting event, cheering for her students on the field or court and, at the same time, grading a set of papers in her lap, cheering students on to academic excellence, punctuated in red ink. Today, we call that multi-tasking, and she was good at it. Once in the summer, I saw her in the library, which was then located in the YMCA. Rather than light summer reading, she was reading a book on Nazi Germany to add depth to her history classes for the coming school year. Another fond memory of her was the time my mother attended a football game on Parent’s Night. My mother had never seen me play a football game because she was afraid I would get hurt and she didn’t want to see it happen. Ms. Holthouser took my mother under her wing and reassured her that I was going to be alright. Ms. Holthouser amused her by saying that she never worried about her boys getting hurt, but rather worried about her boys hurting someone else. And, of course, her big, strapping boys could put a lot of hurt on the opposing team. Because she took an interest in the whole person, Mr. Holthouser had former students visiting her and writing her letters over 50 years after they had her in class. Only great teachers are remembered in this way.
Ms. Holthouser inspired some of us to become educators, but whatever field we chose, she motivated us to reach for self-actualization. In the Class of 64 alone, Jann Gilmore and Jerry Carpenter became Ph.D.’s in history largely due to her influence. Furthermore, the Class of 64 did a survey for its 50-year reunion book, and the teacher mentioned most often as having the greatest impact on their lives was Ms. Holthouser. Here are some comments from that class (and others) about the impact of Ms. Holthouser on their success as a student and in life in general.
Mahala Huffman: She was the main reasons I went into education, which I did for 35 years. She was the only teacher who really showed an interest in me. RIP Ms. H. I will never forget you.
Jann Gilmore: She was a mentor, the best teacher I ever had, and a good friend later in life.
The late Dick Atkinson who became the Dean of the University of Arkansas Law School was also greatly inspired by her. Ms. Holthouser told the story that the new Director of Hugh Chatham Hospital and family, when they arrived in Elkin, were quickly given over to the hands of the family of Rich Atkinson, chair of School Board because of Dick’s reputation in law. Furthermore, there were legions of students, not necessarily interested in history or yearbook or school newspaper who were also inspired by her and challenged to like history and education for the first time.
Ralph Cooke: As a teacher, she was one of the few whose mission, I think, was to make us think, understand, and challenge. She was easily my favorite high school teacher, and I had only one instructor at Carolina I thought was as good a teacher as was she. Most wanted you to memorize things, something I neither liked nor was particularly good at, but she was always more interested in getting us involved in the process of thinking. She also emphasized the need to always keep ourselves well informed of current events, and it was at that time I started reading a newspaper daily. Of course, I only knew her then as a teacher and Carston’s mother, and it was years later that I came to realize how much she had influenced me.
Anne Lewis: She was the best teacher I ever had, not only at the high school level, but college and grad school as well.
Another student that Ms. Holthouser influenced was our foreign exchange student in the Class of 64 – Nestor Oliveri of Argentina. Ms. Holthouser’s family served as the host family for Nestor, and so he learned from her at home and in class. Nestor was so much impressed with democracy in the US that he tried to take it home with him in his suitcase. However, his political activism as a champion for the poor and the disenfranchised ran afoul of the dictatorial regime during the revolutionary period. As a consequence, Nestor had to go into hiding for five years, and he lost contact with the Holthousers for several decades, leading them to believe that he had been killed in the revolution. Recently, some members of the Class of 64 saw a picture of someone on the internet that looked like an older Nestor. A diligent search led to a reunion of Nestor, his classmates and the Holthousers. It was discovered that Nestor had become a doctor and had established a free clinic for the poor in a slum in Buenos Aires. Some seven months later, Nestor died of respiratory failure and about two weeks after learning of Nestor’s death, Ms. Holthouser passed. No doubt, Nestor, in his career as a political activist and benevolent doctor, was greatly influenced by his mentor and teacher, Ms. Holthouser.
Sometimes a person’s legacy becomes greater than the person herself. Not so with Ms. Holthouser – she is greater than her legacy could ever tell. How, then, does one sum up the life and legacy of a great teacher and a great person. The greatest tribute I can think of is that she taught us not to settle for mediocrity, but to aspire to rise from good to great in realizing our highest potential. What greater legacy could there be? I feel certain that I speak for all Ms. Holthouser’s former students in this tribute to a teacher who achieved true greatness.
* We are aware that Ms. Holthouser became Ms. Richards in the latter part of her life, but we hope the reader will forgive us for using the name by which we came to know and love her.
Doug Reinhardt is a member of the Elkin High School Class of 1964.