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On Sports

Recalling the short, heroic life of Maj. Donald Holleder

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Rochester Business Journal
May 22, 2015

As another Memorial Day approaches, Ron Mack can’t help but wonder what might have been had Don Holleder’s life not been cut short while he tried to rescue his fellow soldiers during an ambush in a jungle north of Saigon nearly a half-century ago.

“You talk to anyone who had known Don, whether it was at Aquinas or at West Point, and they all say the same thing—the sky was the limit for him,” said Mack, a retired financial adviser who was a teammate and classmate of Holleder’s at Aquinas Institute in the early 1950s. “He was a natural-born leader. He seemed destined for greatness.”

Holleder’s U.S. Military Academy roommate, Ransom Amlong, believed the former All-American football player would have become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and maybe even followed another West Pointer—Gen. Dwight Eisenhower—into the Oval Office. “Don definitely was on the fast track,” Amlong told me during a visit to Rochester years ago for Holleder’s posthumous induction in the Section V Football Hall of Fame. “Classmates like Gen. (Norman) Schwarzkopf and others who wound up doing big things in life looked up to Don. Everybody did. Don had charisma. He was a guy you trusted, a guy you wanted in your foxhole.”

The opportunity to honor Holleder at that football banquet was bittersweet for Amlong. Decades earlier, he had been summoned to a Washington, D.C., airport to escort his friend’s coffin to the funeral home and eventual burial in Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the grave of John F. Kennedy. “Who knows how many more lives he might have touched,” Amlong said, his voice choked with emotion.

Though we can only speculate about the chapters Holleder might have written had he not been gunned down at age 33 in Vietnam on Oct. 17, 1967, we need not speculate about the impact he had in the short time he lived. His story of sacrifice continues to resonate in Rochester and beyond. He has not been forgotten. On the picturesque West Point campus overlooking the Hudson River, Army continues to play its basketball and hockey games at the Holleder Center. Each year, the Black Lion Sportsmanship Award is presented in honor of Holleder and his fellow soldiers to a member of the Army football team and deserving players from hundreds of high schools and youth league squads nationwide.

Although Rochester’s old Holleder Stadium was razed about 20 years ago, the technology park built in its place bears his name. Webster’s U.S. Army Reserve Center also was renamed in his memory and features an exhibit that includes the commemorative sword Holleder received after graduating from West Point. And each year, since 1985, the Rochester Press-Radio Club has presented the Major Donald Holleder Award to a person whose life has exhibited the highest level of sportsmanship, character, courage and achievement. Winners have included national figures such as Olympian Wilma Rudolph and Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy, as well as local figures Jerry Flynn, Jean Giambrone, Mike Fennell and Linda Hampton.

A native of Buffalo who moved to Rochester when he was 13, Holleder blossomed into one of the greatest athletes this region has ever seen. He captained the football, basketball and baseball teams at Aquinas, and became so proficient at football that he was recruited by nearly 90 Division I programs, including Notre Dame, Ohio State and Syracuse. On his way back from a visit to Yale, he and his father stopped at West Point to meet with Army assistant coach and future Green Bay Packers legend Vince Lombardi. No more recruiting trips were necessary after that stop. He had made up his mind to join the Long Gray Line.

A superb receiver and defender, Holleder caught five touchdown passes his junior year and was named to several All-America teams. With starting quarterback Peter Vann’s eligibility up and no underclassman to fill the void, Army head coach Earl Blaik asked Holleder to make the switch to quarterback his senior season. Holleder had never played the position before, but Blaik loved his leadership skills. The move was not well received at the academy. Administrators and cadets wondered if the Hall of Fame coach had lost his marbles. The press called the experiment “Blaik’s Folly.” The criticism reached a crescendo during a late-season loss to Syracuse in which the cadets began chanting for Holleder’s backup to enter the game.

But Blaik’s unwavering faith was rewarded when the quarterback led Army to a 14-6 upset of highly ranked Navy the Saturday after Holleder’s handsome face was splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In a telegram sent to Blaik following the game, a euphoric Gen. Douglas MacArthur called the victory one of the most stirring in Army history.

That winter, the New York Giants drafted Holleder in the eighth round, and Lombardi, then a Giants assistant, drove to West Point in hopes of convincing his former player to forgo his military career and play pro football. But Holleder turned him down. During the next decade, he steadily climbed the ladder, rising to the rank of major. In 1967, he returned to Rochester for a banquet, and sought out Mack to set up a fund for his four daughters. “I’ll never forget it,” Mack recalled. “He said, ‘You better put my wife’s name down as custodian because I might not make it back.’”

Holleder could have opted for a safe assignment in Europe, but instead insisted on a combat assignment with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam. In mid-October that year, a savage skirmish broke out in Ong Thanh. While surveying the embattled area from his helicopter, Holleder noticed a group of wounded American soldiers on the fringe of the jungle. James Shelton, a retired brigadier general, recalled hearing the major taking charge over the radio. “Hey, there’s wounded out there,” Holleder shouted. “Let’s go get ’em. You get a machete. You, Doc, follow me. We’ve got to get those guys.” Ninety minutes into the rescue, Holleder was shot dead.

“I got a call about two in the morning,” Amlong remembered. “It was as if somebody had cut out a chunk of my soul.”

Mack felt the same way. His son, Brian Mack, was born five days after Holleder’s death. “We had planned to give him the middle name of Daniel, but once I heard the news, we changed it to Donald,” Mack said. “It was our small way of remembering a true American hero.”

Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.

5/22/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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