It’s difficult to keep retired Central Junior High School teacher Chuck Holley on track when you ask him about his career.
After 34 years as a drama, speech and history teacher, as well as a football and basketball coach in the Lawrence school system, Holley has a lot of stories.
He’ll drop in a detail or two about himself. Such as being the middle of 13 children and growing up on Long Island. Or serving in Vietnam after being drafted in 1967.
But Holley steers the conversation back to the thousands of students he’s taught. The Rhodes Scholar, the state champion football players and the Broadway actress. And the students in the numerous plays and musicals; he helped produce everything from the “Wizard of Oz” to “South Pacific” on the Central Junior High stage.
“Junior high students can do anything they put their minds to,” said Holley, talking about how one memorable acting crew put on “Fiddler on the Roof” with less than four weeks of preparation. “The kids loved it.”
In his time as a mentor, teacher and friend, it’s clear the kids loved him as well.
Holley beams with pride as he picks up a book on his coffee table. It’s a master’s thesis written by one his former students, Marilynn Richtarik. The thesis includes a dedication to Holley.
“He was one of the very few teachers ever to give me a ‘B,’” said a laughing Richtarik, who went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and now teaches at Georgia State University.
Holley was tough and demanding, Richtarik said, but “he made us care.”
Married on stage
Between teaching, producing plays and coaching, Holley’s work and personal life were one in the same, said Pat Boyd-Williams, a former Central music teacher who worked with Holley for two decades.
“It was his life,” she said. “Chuck was all about the kids.”
And on the very stage where he helped direct many plays over the years, Holley married his wife, fellow teacher Sara Howat.
Their courtship began, Holley says, when he was at the school, working on a weekend as usual.
“I hear music in Room 112,” says Holley, who found Howat — who was divorced and had three children — listening to Natalie Cole while grading papers. After some time exchanging awkward glances and shy smiles, Howat placed a note in Holley’s teacher mailbox asking him to a concert, and that was it.
They decided to get married in 1995, but not until November.
“If we get married, you’ll have to wait until after football season,” Holley told his bride-to-be. That year, the Lawrence High football team he helped coach would win the state championship.
It was a somewhat odd journey to Kansas for Holley, having been raised in New York. His father owned a restaurant and bar, and Holley would see people from his Long Island neighborhood who would graduate from high school, get a 9-to-5 job, and spend their nights at the bar. He wanted something more, and needed some new experiences.
“I just needed to get away from New York,” said Holley, a high school football, basketball and baseball player.
Holley made an unlikely college choice, Pittsburg State University. He’d never been to Kansas before, but heard good things about the school and the area from others who had moved to Kansas. He got on a bus and 38 hours later was in Pittsburg, where the community would make him feel at home.
“They’re the greatest people around,” said Holley of the people he met in college, who spoke a little differently than they did in Long Island. “I’ve been blessed being in Kansas.”
After serving in Vietnam, Holley finished his studies at Pittsburg State in theater and drama. He had wanted to be a physical education teacher, but got the acting bug, performing in college productions of “West Side Story” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Ask former students about Chuck Holley, and at some point, it’s a good bet there’ll be some awkward silences as they fight back tears talking about a man many refer to as a hero.
“He helped me find my strength,” said Becky Hilt, a Derby middle school teacher who said Holley inspired her to become a teacher. “I owe my career to him.”
Hilt took speech, drama, history and English courses with Holley in the late 1970s. Hilt had some behavioral problems in school and grew up without a father.
Hilt believes Holley took that information and made an effort to take the teenager under his wing, and cajoled her into acting.
“I didn’t know about any of that,” said Hilt of some hidden acting talent she had, buried deep, but never exposed until she met Holley.
Hilt is one of several former students who describe Holley as a leader who didn’t need to say much.
“I remember this stern, quiet, rock-solid man who walked up and down the halls looking for troublemakers,” Hilt said.
In fact, Hilt and her friends made a game out of trying to get Holley to smile; which they were able to do a time or two.
On the stage, Holley was demanding of his actors, Hilt said.
“He would push you and push you until you gave him what he knew you had,” she said.
A few years back, Hilt and her students participated in an essay project, where the class members wrote stories about their heroes. Hilt wrote an essay about Holley. At a school assembly, a few students read their essays, and teachers arranged for the heroes to make an appearance. Hilt read her essay, and was surprised at the end when “Mr. Holley” surprised her in the auditorium. Hilt went running and screaming to Holley.
“The fact that there was a man who cared deeply about kids all the time ... ” said Hilt, tearing up.
— Reporter Shaun Hittle can be reached at 832-7173. Follow him at Twitter.com/shaunhittle.