Late WWII veteran leaves piece of his legacy to GPS teacher
In July 2017, Bonnie Hickman, a sixth grade teacher at Patterson Elementary, volunteered to give a ride to Joseph “Jack” Holder. The Pearl Harbor survivor needed help getting to the Veterans Affairs hospital, so a local organization connected him with Hickman.
“I was available and was able to meet him then,” she said, “That was the first day I met my hero.”
The two developed a friendship, and on September 11 of that same year, Holder came to share his military story with Hickman’s class. It became a tradition that he’d continue for the next several years. He also spoke to Highland High School’s marching band upon Hickman’s request.
“The band was going to Pearl Harbor for the anniversary, and he met up with them there as well,” she said.
Holder, a native of Gunther, Texas, enlisted in the US Navy in April 1940 at the age of 18. After attending boot camp and aviation machinist school, he was transferred to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. He served as a member of the Patrol Bomber Y Squadron. About a year later, on December 7, 1941, Holder was on duty at Ford Island when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He witnessed the tragic deaths of his Navy shipmates and the catastrophic damage done to the Navy ships. Following the attack, he flew in more than 100 Navy missions in WWII. In 1948, he was honorably discharged and awarded several military distinctions.
“He was an amazing guy,” Hickman said.
Holder passed away in February 2023 at the age of 101 after a short illness. His dear friends are now carrying on his memory and fulfilling some of his final wishes.
“When Jack left us, he left us a list of people he wanted to have something to remember him by,” said Dennis Gardner to Hickman.
Gardner, a former Fire Control Technician Chief with the US Navy, and retired Air Force Master Sergeant Darlene Tryon surprised Hickman and her students in their classroom at Patterson Elementary. Gardner and Tryon presented her with a shadow box, featuring treasured mementos of Holder, including a book about his life story.
“Mr. Jack was like a grandfather to me,” Hickman said while tearing up.
She has many fond memories of her friendship with Holder, including the time when her students helped him celebrate his 100th birthday. They volunteered to open all of the cards and gifts that he received for the milestone. It took two classes of students over the course of a year to finish cataloging the items.
“We were able to present Mr. Jack on his 101st birthday with a spreadsheet book listing the 14,705 cards and signatures that he received for his 100th birthday the year before,” she said.
The students also sang happy birthday to him and had a cake to celebrate. Hickman believes having Holder come to her classroom over the years had a significant impact on her students and their learning.
“Bringing in veterans is a terrific way to tie in the civic standards as well as the history of our country. Plus, it opens up a great path to writing as well as community involvement and connection with the older generations,” she said.
When Holder would end his lectures to the students, he would always remind them how important it was to get a good education and to learn all that they could.
“He loved seeing you kids,” Gardner said.
Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane McCord and the Governing Board will honor Holder’s memory and contributions to GPS students at their board meeting on Tuesday, April 25, 2023.