Wilbert Holmes, a modest York educator whose tough but steady hand helped integrate York County schools in the 1960s and 1970s, has died of cancer at his Rock Hill home. He was 73.
Known for his fairness, Holmes worked with York schools for 36 years, serving in various positions, including teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal before retiring in 1996 as principal of York Junior High School.
His teaching career began in segregated schools reserved for blacks. When York County's schools were desegregated, Holmes was the first black school administrator in York schools.
He faced death threats quietly. Holmes, who died Thursday, spoke little about his personal experience with integration, a gradual process in York from 1965 to 1970.
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Neighbor and colleague Robert Parker, 70, said Holmes was a strict disciplinarian who was fair.
"That's what it took in those days," said Parker, himself a black educator who retired from Rock Hill schools in 1992. "We were all involved in things that aided a smooth transition.
"We were hired to teach, and we were hired to teach everybody. That was our job to do, no matter of race."
Holmes was a teacher and later a friend to Steve Love, former president of the Western York NAACP. Love credits Holmes for preparing him to move from all-black Jefferson Junior High School to a fully integrated York High School in 1970.
"He told you how to carry on to be the best you could be in academics," said Love, who heard untrue horror stories of black students falling behind in school. "He always kept you on the right path."
As a boss, Holmes ran his school by the book and supported his employees, said Mike Smith, 55, at the time a physical education teacher at Harold C. Johnson Middle School.
"He was firm, fair and consistent," he said.
Teacher at home, too
Dylan Holmes, 42, and Danette Holmes Burnette, 39, said their father was even a teacher at home, when they didn't know it.
"It was hard to be in his presence and not be challenged," said Burnette, a mother of three. "He was always willing to share, but he would wait and ask you if you wanted his opinion."
Dylan Holmes, a healthcare consultant, remembers his father as a natural-born leader who did not seek the spotlight.
"He was modest, so willing to stay in the background," Dylan Holmes said, "but when duty called, he saw he had to make the world a better place."
Holmes talked even less about his time in the military than his role in integration. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and later received a direct appointment commissioning him as a U.S. Army Officer.
"We are still learning about things he has done," said Burnette. "He never brought them up as something out of the norm. When he enlisted in the Army he already had a college degree."
But that was just Wilbert Holmes - a man who believed in serving his country and paying taxes. Both to him were just a small price to pay to live happily in the United States.
"He had a sense of integrity that was just amazing," Dylan Holmes said.
After retiring from the York schools, Holmes remained a teacher of sorts as a travel coordinator at the South Carolina Welcome Center in Fort Mill, where he worked. He viewed his position as a dream job and asked for no pay, which was denied.
He had signed up to audit a Southern history course at Winthrop University in the fall, a class his children said he could have taught from life experience.
"He was an avid reader and historian," said Dylan Holmes. "He was a shining example of life-long learning."
A full life, lived well
During his retirement, Holmes dove into genealogical research to find out more about his ancestors, especially those who were slaves.
"I want to tell my grandchildren, let them read about who they are," Holmes told The Herald in 2007 interview. "The older I get, the more I appreciate family."
He found his great-grandfather, Cornelius Holmes, was born in 1855 in Edgefield County to a slave family owned by a U.S. congressman named Preston Brooks. History most remembers Brooks as the legislator who, upon hearing a Massachusetts senator speak against slavery, beat the man with his cane on the Senate floor.
The incident further inflamed tensions in the run-up to the Civil War.
Cornelius Holmes was one of the more than 2,000 ex-slaves who were interviewed across the county during the late 1930s as part of a Works Progress Administration project.
"We shouldn't forget our past," Wilbert Holmes told The Herald, "but we have to work together to move forward."
His children said he faced cancer with the same dignity he showed throughout his life. He was diagnosed eight years ago, but hit a decline in the last several weeks. His wife, Zora, died in March 2009.
"He viewed death as a life process," said Burnette, who now lives in Florida. "He was OK with the idea. He had lived a full life and had lived it well and he was grateful for that."
Visitation: Noon to 1 p.m. Saturday, Mount Prospect Baptist Church, 339 W. Black St., Rock Hill
Funeral: 1 p.m. Saturday, Mount Prospect Baptist Church
Interment: Grandview Memorial Park, 620 S. Cherry Road, Rock Hill
Memorials: In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials be made to Wilbert and Zora Holmes Scholarship Endowment Fund, Foundation For The Carolinas, 217 S. Tryon St., Charlotte, NC 28202. The fund provides college or technical school scholarships to graduating seniors from York Comprehensive High School.