A group of the late Julia Holthouser Richards’ former students are rallying to convince the Elkin City Schools Board of Education to name the high school library after their beloved teacher.
Doug Reinhardt of Statesville, a member of the Elkin High Class of 1964, said he came up with the idea when he was driving home from Holthouser Richards’ July 20th memorial service at Elkin Presbyterian Church. “I was thinking about a way to honor her so her legacy wouldn’t die,” he said, “and then it dawned on me, ‘Why don’t we name the library for her because her name was synonymous with academic excellence?’ “
Julia Holthouser Richards was also on the committee to establish the Elkin Public Library, Reinhardt said, “so I thought that would be a good way to honor her.”
That evening when he got home, Reinhardt sent out an email blast to his classmates and one of her sons, Will Holthouser, to see what they thought. “Everybody loved the idea,” he said.
Reinhardt also spread the word on Facebook and asked people who were in favor of the idea to click on “Like.” The response was overwhelmingly positive, he said.
As support for the idea continued to grow through social media and classmates spreading the word in emails and phone calls, Reinhardt made a formal request to Dr. Randy Bledsoe, superintendent of the Elkin City Schools.
Bledsoe shared the request with Elkin City Schools Board of Education members at their meeting on Aug. 24 and encouraged them to get opinions from people in the community about the matter. He said in a later interview that the school system will be putting together a team “to talk to staff and people in the community about their thoughts on naming the media center in honor of Mrs. Holthouser Richards.”
Elkin High School graduates living all over the country have expressed their support for the idea. Anne Lewis of Casa Grande, Arizona, sent an email to the Tribune sharing her memories of Mrs. Holthouser Richards.
Holthouser Richards’ Elkin students all remember her as “Mrs. Holthouser.” After her first husband, Manuel Carston Holthouser, who was the administrator of Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital, died, she married Dick Richards, and moved to Swannanoa, where she taught for a while at Warren Wilson College.
Lewis said one of the things she admired most about Mrs. Holthouser was her humility. “She said, ‘I’m just a teacher,’ ” she recalled. “She wasn’t an egotist. She was just a great person, one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”
“For me personally,” she wrote, “in addition to giving me the love of history and the desire to go behind the scenes to the vagaries of historical personalities of the era, Julia gave me the power of example of a life well lived. A life with integrity engaged in not only her teaching profession but with her family, her community and social engagements.”
One of Lewis’ most vivid memories of Mrs. Holthouser happened on Nov. 22, 1963. Students heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, in an intercom announcement, but it was their beloved teacher who walked into her journalism class and told the students he had died.
“She said, ‘Boys and Girls, our president is dead,’ ” Lewis said. “She said it in a very solemn way, and we were all just stunned.”
In her job as librarian for Lathan & Watkins LLP in New York City, the No. 1 global legal firm in the world, Lewis said she had the opportunity to hear speeches by Bill Gates, Madeline Albright, Molly Irvins and Ann Richards. “Julia shared the same charismatic form of delivery,” she said, “talking for an hour without notes and engaging the students to be caught up and share her enthusiasm for the subject and not wanting the class period to end.
“But equally as compelling as her intellect and teaching skills was the feeling students sensed that she really liked them. She ‘got’ teenagers. We were treated as worthy and cared for human beings.”
On the day Lewis graduated from Elkin High School, she said Mrs. Holthouser gave her a personal note she had handwritten. “I found out later she had written someone else a personal note,” she said, “and I don’t know for certain, but I think she may have written a personal note to everyone in our class. We just all felt like she really cared about us as people.”
Reinhart said he and his wife, the former Peggy Bivins, a member of the 1963 graduating class at Elkin High School, had planned to visit Mrs. Holthouser Richards at her home in the Parkwood Retirement Community the day she died. “I called and got her son, John, and he said he was going to take her to the doctor,” he said, “no emergency, just a routine kind of checkup.”
Sadly, when Reinhart called back later to see if she had returned, John Holthouser told him he had found her lying on the floor and that she had passed away.
It was not unusual for former students to visit Mrs. Holthouser Richards, and she loved seeing them and talking to them, according to Ralph Cooke, who was in the 1965 graduating class of Elkin High School. “I went by the week before she died and spent about 30 minutes with her,” he said.
“Maybe she was old by years,” Cooke said, “but you didn’t think you were talking with an old person. She still had a fresh outlook. Her mind was sharp. She was just the same as she was when she was teaching.”
Cook’s wife, Johnny Foster Cook, was also one of Mrs. Holthouser’s students.
Many of Mrs. Holthouser Richards’ former students were among the crowd that filled the Presbyterian Church on the day of her funeral, Cooke said, as people drove from all over to attend.
When asked how Mrs. Holthouser Richards had impacted his life the most, Cooke said it was the critical thinking skills she taught him. “I had never learned about it before,” he said, “and it affected how I looked at things going forward for the rest of my life.”
Sally Whitney, an author who now lives in Millersville, Maryland, and a fellow member of the Class of 1965, said Mrs. Holthouser Richards took an interest in all of her students. “Having a teacher who you knew cared about you, not only as a student, but as a person does something as far as making you more aware of your self-worth,” she said.
Whitney said she had Mrs. Holthouser for classes on democracy, U.S. history, European history and journalism. “I don’t think her background was in journalism,” she said, “but I think the school needed a journalism teacher and she tackled it full force like she did everything.”
As a former journalist and public relations writer who went on to write for magazines, Whitney said she remembered Mrs. Holthouser stressing that clear writing came from clear thinking. “If your writing is muddled,” she said her teacher used to say, “it’s because your thinking is muddled.”
Elkin High School was blessed to have had several good teachers during her time at the school, Whitney said, “but she was certainly right there at the top.”
Whitney said she will always remember Mrs. Holthouser sitting on her desk talking to the class. “It was so wonderful,” she said. “She would get us so interested in the people … those kings and queens. She cared about whether we were actually learning and understanding.
“She nurtured in so many of us who grew up in Elkin a real love of learning,” Whitney said. “I think naming a library in her honor is very appropriate.”
Kathy Chaffin can be reached at 336-258-4058.