Opinion: New ‘Holton School’ would provide history lesson

Published 10:29 am Monday, September 17, 2012

If the Austin School Board makes a final decision to name the new school for I.J. Holton — which I very much encourage it to do — it will present the school’s administration and faculty with a distinctly difficult problem. Students need to be taught why their school is so named by understanding the man for whom it is named. But just how do you do that about a man like the late Jim Holton? If we can answer that lyrical “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?”, perhaps we can. Kids won’t be able to look at his picture and see what those of us who knew Jim experienced in him.

If they erect a life-sized statue (which would be appropriate enough), kids would see a man small of stature but unable to recognize his mammoth character. His name would grace the school, and his example should inspire to greatness all who teach there and all who study there. But how are we going to show them the measure of this man when he can no longer be experienced?

One way is to tell stories to which they can relate. Here is one, but a long way from the most compelling. It’s just mine.

A number of years ago, I was invited to Port Royal, South Carolina, for a re-enactment of the initial reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It was to be held on the site of what was then Camp Saxton where on New Years Day 1863 the Proclamation was read to the first group of slaves freed by it. My role was to read the Proclamation to the descendants of those slaves, because I am a descendent of the original reader.

The event was hosted by a very poor school for Blacks, and they had no budget to bring me down. I was unable to fund the trip and the expenses of research into why my great, great grandfather freed his slaves and why he was the reader. Mr. Holton had always been most pleasant to me (as he was to everyone he met). Earlier my older son was on an early morning run and came upon him. Mark asked, from Herald pictures, “Are you Mr. Holton?” He quietly said so and immediately engaged him in a conversation in which he treated this high school kid with recognizable respect. Mark thought he was lucky enough just to meet the CEO of a major corporation, but it was beyond belief that he would be interested in this kid. But he was. Jim Holton was interested in everybody, even the least of us.

So, I asked Mr. Holton if he could direct me to possible sources of funding and he did. The check came and, with it, his own personal check. (I now depart comfortably from his request not to mention this.) I am somewhat aware of many such acts of generous kindness, but never learned it from him.

A few months later I walked out onto Omaha Beach and recalled he had landed there as a young lieutenant during the invasion. I scooped up some sand and carried it back to Austin in a vial. I phoned him and asked if I could present this to him as a token of my admiration for what he did then and all he had done since.

He invited me to his retirement office, a little room above the stores on Main Street. I asked what drove him—what gave meaning and purpose to his life. He asked me to sit in his chair and look at what he saw every day as he worked there. Propped up where he could always see it was a handwritten 3×5 card with the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah:

“He has shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

This was I.J. Holton in a word, and it is with this we are challenged to inspire generations of teachers and students alike. It will be I.J. Holton School, because the man’s purpose and meaning was to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with his God. Let’s collect such stories, put them in a book, and make them required reading. Let’s never forget the measure of the man or the meaning of I.J. Holton School.