One week ago, Dr. Bruce Holle died. He had just retired from over 40 years of teaching. If you never took one of his history classes, the universe robbed you. He was a force of nature.
This was a guy who dropped his math major in college to study history because he found math “too boring.” My first day of class with him was surreal. His very presence was captivating. He was intense, intimidating and wickedly intelligent, yet singularly hilarious. The first day of class was his weed-out day; the rest of the course would not be for the faint of heart.
I took Dr. Holle during my first semester of college for a 300-level “Intro to Christianity” course. “Intro” was a misnomer; we read seven books that semester, including a 600-pager. To study for his exams, we’d have to prepare eight essays on esoteric history topics. He would quiz us at the end of each lecture on what he’d taught just minutes before. If you hadn’t read the material for class, he would know. I promise you. He. Would. Know. No scholastic experience taught me more, nor gave me more self-confidence, than that course with Dr. Holle. The man’s pedagogy tactics were unparalleled.
You couldn’t truly understand Dr. Holle unless you understood his background: he was a first-generation college student who grew up in Chicago and it colored his teaching style. He taught with an intense vigor. He was pugnacious with a sarcastic sense of humor. He had a witty banter and tough persona. He never adopted that Southern Kentucky warmth, and he was all the better for it. The man was utterly compelling.
Dr. Holle cared about students in a way that most teachers don’t. He cared about students enough to accept nothing but the best from them. He cared about them enough to show them how much they were capable of doing. He didn’t baby or coddle us. He didn’t accept excuses or occasional laziness. He pushed us to excellence, and we needed it.
However, the most wonderful thing about Dr. Holle was the irresistible dynamic formed between his tough-love teaching style and his profound care for his students.
I can’t help but wonder if years of reading ancient history had convinced Dr. Holle of what the Greek philosophers believed: that love knew no higher calling than friendship. When we needed him, he was there to listen. He expressed such a genuine interest in the lives of students. Conversations in his office resulted in encouraging and sincere life advice. One of his oft repeated adages went, “Find something you love to do, something you can do every day, and do it. Then you won’t have a job; you’ll have a life.” Dr. Holle had a life. He spent a career growing young men and women, and he loved it.
Dr. Holle leaves behind scores of students indelibly impacted by his teaching and mentoring. I think that in many ways, he thought of himself as a relic of a bygone era—a time where it was okay to challenge students, to speak hard truth to them, and to demand excellence of them. The world needed Dr. Holle for that very reason.
I know he’d probably scold me for any tears I shed or gratuitous praises I give him over his death, and it would probably be useless to tell Dr. Holle to rest in peace. I’m sure he’s up in heaven raising hell right now.
But there was a poignant moment in class one day that I can’t stop thinking about; it now seems surreal. Our discussion of Christian history had drifted to the topic of honoring the dead.
We were comparing antiquity’s respect for the dead to the modern world’s. Dr. Holle talked about visiting the grave of his wife, whom he had loved dearly, and then pensively paused.
“I wonder who will visit my grave when I’m gone,” he pondered. There wasn’t any note of self-pity in his voice; it was sincere curiosity. I had a habit of writing down Holle quotes in my notebook, and his question so moved me that I wrote it down along with a silent, resolute promise: I will.
And I will, Dr. Holle. I wish I could have taken more of your ridiculously hard courses. I wish I could have heard more of your wild stories and life advice. I wish we could have finally had a beer together. But if we can no longer do that then I’ll keep that promise I made: I’ll come sit by your grave and enjoy the company of one of the greatest men, and best teachers, I ever knew.