Robert Holder is the man you would want on your side if a disaster ever happened. He has the perfect balance of intelligence paired with common sense, along with an enterprising spirit, the heart of a teacher and a father, and a mighty green thumb.
Holder grew up in the Highland Park community, with parents who farmed as a necessity. “We had a cow, hogs, chickens…my mother taught me about gardening. My father raised tobacco and I worked for farmers, including Will Hooker who taught me a lot about farming. We bought very little from the store, since were were pretty self-sufficient.”
He graduated from Franklin School, which included a high school at that time and worked at Poore’s Grocery Store on Main Street in downtown Mount Airy, where he met his wife Francis. Holder said his brother and Francis conspired to arrange a meeting between them, and they hit it off — they married after he graduated from high school.
Holder went into the Army from 1950 to 1952 and then attended Gardener-Webb and Wake Forest University for college, receiving both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history. He went on to attend UNC-Greensboro, where he earned an Ed.S. and master’s degree in administration.
“My professional training has been in academics, but I never lost my love for gardening,” explained Holder. “I always felt that it was important for students to at least be exposed to the old skills. Many are lost now…it is important to keep those skills alive.”
Holder is a teacher, a true teacher. He said he feels like it is a calling and he has been a teacher of not only school, but gardening, and also at Highland Park Church, which he has attended since he was born, for more than 80 years.
Holder will turn 82 in August.
He is thankful for his good health, which he attributes to keeping his mind and body active and trying to stay away from processed foods, which he said are not as nutritious as eating fruits and vegetables they raised themselves.
Holder was a history teacher for 12 years at Mount Airy High School before he became involved in the vocational program as director and VICA sponsor. “I was interested in the vocational program because, basically, I’m a teacher to begin with and I felt students need to learn how to make a living, and they could do that by learning the skills taught through vocational programs,” Holder said.
The Vocational Honors Society at Mount Airy High School is named in honor of Robert Holder.
Holder remarked that most of the students who were a part of VICA and the vocational programs appreciated their experiences and he hears from many of them now. “If you can help to mold the character and attitude of young people as they come along, it helps them later in life,” said Holder.
While working with the vocational programs at Mount Airy High School, Holder took students to the state convention for VICA each year. In 1972, he had one of his “most memorable experiences” while traveling through Dunn on the way back from the convention in Wilmington.
The group stopped in Dunn to each lunch. That year, the club had 16 students on the trip, half male and half female. Holder said he stopped and asked someone which restaurant in town was the best, and the man directed him to a certain restaurant, where the group went inside and waited for what Holder described as a “long, long time.”
After it became apparent that the restaurant did not want to serve them, one of the female students told Holder she thought that it was because they were black, and the restaurant only wanted to serve white people, and offered to go with the other black students, the eight females in the group, to a gas station and told him to “go ahead and eat with the boys,” who were all white.
Holder said he was very upset and refused to let the girls leave.
“‘Either we all eat or nobody eats,’ I said. They eventually seated us, but they brought the black cook out of the kitchen to wait on us. That was probably one of the grossest incidents of discrimination that I encountered after we were integrated on the high school level,” Holder explained.
“I remember it very clear today. I felt like they wanted to discriminate against our students and I was not going to allow it. We didn’t allow it in our own school and we were certainly not going to abandon the students who were with us. It spoke well of our group that we had such equal representation and all the students enjoyed it and participated and got along well with each other. I was happy for the opportunity to carry them on the trip and I wanted the experience to be positive for all of us.”
Holder became the assistant superintendent for Mount Airy City Schools in 1975 and served through 1991, when he retired. Retirement lasted only about three months when he was contacted by Surry Community College to serve as the director of the tech prep programs. He worked for SCC and five school systems in order to promote vocational development and helped to coordinate the curricula between area high schools and SCC in 21 subject areas, which became the model that was used by many other colleges in North Carolina.
After five years at SCC, Holder went back to his early love, gardening. He said he had a small garden while he was working, but was not able to maintain it as well as he wanted to while working long hours, but after retirement, his garden flourished.
In 1993, Holder took the Master Gardner class offered through the Surry County Center of the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension, and this year marks Holder’s 20th as an active Master Gardner. Even after working for so many years, retirement was not about relaxing and sitting back for Holder, he continued to work and teach, but this time through the land, as he filled his property with gardens and an orchard — a small, but very active farm.
Holder said he saw many people “retire and stop” but that wasn’t for him. “If you stop, your life is over. I’m determined I am not going to do that. It’s a love of nature and gardening and that’s special to me. If we can share not only what we have, but the knowledge as well, that is what is important.”
Holder said the knowledge about gardening he has gained over the years through the Master Gardener program “went straight back to childhood.”
“We [the Master Gardeners] are involved in offering classes and workshops, that are free for the most part, and trying to teach people the old skills and the importance of gardening, as well as current methods…I think we need to be raising more of our food because research shows most vegetables and fruits in stores have traveled a total of 1,500 miles — this should not be when we can grow our own. We have such a good apple-growing area and the most apples sold in the supermarkets come from another place.”
Holder has apple trees on his property, and enjoys grafting trees. He is trying to raise a descendant from a pear tree at the moment, and has multiple apple trees he grafted himself, after learning the skill from Lee Calhoun of Chatham County, who started the heritage apple farm at Horne Creek Living Historical Farm and wrote a book called “Old Southern Apples.” Holder said the extension center offers a class on grafting.
Holder described the process of grafting. “You get root stock, most use dwarf root stock. You take the root stock and cut it when it is about 12 inches tall. You get cuttings off of existing trees, the best cuttings you can get, called scions, last year’s growth, then you split the root stock in the top and trim the scion into a point and force it to match the cambium layers, then tape it and seal with wax or an asphalt-based material, seal it air tight, then it will grow as long as you got the cambium layers of the bark matched properly. The root stock determines the height of the tree. You can raise one from apple seed, but because of the pollination issue you don’t know what the seed was pollinated with, the seedling won’t necessarily be true to the variety of apple…dwarf root stock are easier to handle and smaller. Grafting is not difficult, it just requires finesse. Anyone can do it and have success.”
Holder and his wife Francis grow much of what they eat. They try to stay away from pesticides and have a goal every year to can and freeze about 500 containers and cans of food. “Generally, if we want something to eat, we go to the freezer and pantry and get it. Today there are so many things that occur, storms and other things, and you can’t always get to the store, but that’s not a major problem for us.”
This year, Holder said he already has planted onions, lettuce, radishes, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower. He will plant his beans and corn soon, as well as other vegetables such as squash, potatoes, and many others. He has an orchard with apple trees in full bloom, cherry trees, peach trees, pears, muscadine grapes, as well as blueberries, strawberries and blackberries. They buy 25 chickens every year and harvest their eggs, then butcher them every couple of years and freeze and can the meat.
“We have excellent meals,” said Holder. “For lunch today we had apples, green beans, carrots and crowder peas, and all of it came from the garden,” Holder said proudly. Quite often, their entire family of around 30 people gather in their home, enjoying a meal prepared by Holder and his wife Francis, made almost entirely from food they grew themselves.
Robert and Francis Holder have two children, Joseph and Ann. Joseph Holder and his wife Melissa live behind Robert and Francis and they have three children. Daughter Ann Collins lives on a farm in Francisco with her husband Tommy, who have five children. Holder has 12 great-grandchildren, and is expecting another any day now.
Holder described his grandson, David, as his “constant companion” and Holder said David shares his love of gardening and farming. One year ago, at age 9, David grafted his own Arkansas Black Apple tree, a moment which Holder described proudly. “I couldn’t do it without David, he is right there with me all the time and he enjoys every bit of it.
“It means the world to me to pass on my knowledge to my grandchildren. They are all interested in farming and gardening and I share with them as well, share vegetables, trees, and knowledge.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime,” is a famous phrase attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. It is also a concept that Holder greatly admires, one that served as the motto for the vocational programs he loved, but also a metaphor for the way Holder lives his life, and a lesson he hopes to pass on to his children and grandchildren.
“I maintain my ties with the earth, so I can always reconnect with that. It’s enjoyable and not only enjoyable, but rewarding.”
Reach Jessica Johnson at email@example.com or 719-1933.