The image is from the fall of 1959. It’s between classes at Union Grove High School and students are chatting about Friday night dates, the Milwaukee Braves missing out on a third straight World Series appearance and whether this new coach in Green Bay named Lombardi might amount to anything.
Lou Holland is strolling with a group of seniors down the corridor and he’s just one of the guys. Even though he is the star athlete and a rare black student enrolled in the school, he blends right into the crowd.
“He was outgoing, very friendly, had a great sense of humor and, in spite of his great athletic talent, he was always humble,” said Norm Klug, who graduated from Union Grove in 1962, two years after Holland. “I think everyone really liked Louie and just thought he was a great kid.
“I never once, nor did I think others, ever thought about race and color. He was just Louie.”
Just another guy. That was Lou Holland. The paradox here is this ordinary guy was, in truth, extraordinary.
The same young man who blended in with the crowd was developing an enormous work ethic during his high school years, rising early and going to bed late to feed livestock at the family’s Holland Implement Company in Mount Pleasant. He used to lift home-made weights comprised of broom handles with varying sizes of cans filled with concrete on either end. He was studying so intensely that he became an honor student, represented Union Grove at Badger Boys State in Madison and earned an athletic scholarship from the University of Wisconsin.
Holland went on to make a major impact for the Badgers during their unforgettable 42-37 loss to USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl. But his most lasting achievement came in the world of finance, where he started Holland Capital Management in 1991 and saw it attain more than $2 billion under his management.
For the last two years, the 71-year-old Holland has battled Alzheimer’s at the Belmont Village Nursing Home in Oak Park, Ill. But in a 2004 interview with The Journal Times, Holland reflected on the motivation that drove him to such dazzling heights.
“All the best people in whatever walk of life you have are people who have paid the price, people who work Saturdays and Sundays and work nights,” Holland said. “So those men are achievers. Playing sports as I reflect on that, I was a little guy size-wise (5-foot-10, 187 pounds as listed on the 1962 Wisconsin roster). But I felt I could change the world. I felt there wasn’t any mountain I couldn’t climb.”
At least in the realm of athletics, it’s difficult to imagine Holland climbing a mountain higher than making the progression from tiny Union Grove to mighty Wisconsin. The running back who ran with ferocious leg action helped the No. 2 Badgers push No. 1 Southern Cal to the limit in the 1963 Rose Bowl. He even played the role of USC freshman running back Mike Garrett, who went on to win the 1965 Heisman Trophy, during practices leading up to the Rose Bowl.
In the actual game, Holland was sensational. He caught eight passes for 72 yards, rushed for 27 yards and a touchdown on four carries and had a scoring reception called back in the first half because of a holding penalty.
“It shouldn’t have been the call that was made on further review, so to speak,” said Pat Richter, a senior receiver for the Badgers that season who went on to become UW’s athletic director from 1989-2004. “Obviously, most people think, ‘If we would have had that touchdown, we would have won.’ ”
In Richter’s mind, Holland as a person matched the athlete he was.
“He was a guy with a great sense of humor and someone we used to have a lot of fun with,” Richter said. “He was just one of the guys. And, obviously, he was tremendously successful in life.”
Merritt Norvell, a senior fullback on that team, also remembers a special person.
“He was a kid who came from Union Grove, came to Wisconsin, did well and went on to do real well in the private corporate world,” Norvell said.
And, yet, Holland never changed.
“This man would walk into the office every morning and say, ‘Top of the morning to you!’ ” said Cindy Gentile, who served as Holland’s executive assistant. “He’d be smiling and whistling and he just had the greatest demeanor.”
Just as he did more than 50 years earlier.
“He was just a nice guy,” 1961 Union Grove graduate Jim Wilks said.