When the new gymnasium at Needham B. Broughton High School was dedicated, Joe Holliday had no idea he was sitting on bleachers in a building that would carry his name for generations.
It was 1968, and he was wrapping up a 21-year career at Broughton, which included 15 years as the school’s principal and several years as the varsity boys basketball coach. He was about to embark on what would be another decade working in the school system’s central office, first as the assistant superintendent of secondary education for Raleigh City Schools, then as area director.
His two young daughters snuck into the gym with their mother so they could be part of the surprise. His older daughter, Jane Houchin of Raleigh, remembers getting out of school early and being dressed up for the occasion.
“I think it was probably one of the greatest honors he’s ever had,” said his younger daughter, Amanda Spencer of Asheboro.
Holliday died this month at 91, but his name will live on amid the thump of basketballs and the cheers of the crowd.
What made that honor especially meaningful to Holliday was that the students had initiated naming the gym after him. He had worked at Broughton first as the Dean of Boys, then assistant principal before becoming principal in 1952. In that time he fostered an environment where learning with dignity was the priority, making Broughton one of the top schools in the area, if not the state. He had a reputation for being no-nonsense and yet he did not keep students at a distance. He was fully available, no matter what was needed, and was always fair.
Dr. Randall Watts William, who cofounded the Broughton Athletics Hall of Fame, said Holliday shaped his school much as William Friday shaped the University of North Carolina system as its president.
“He was just a giant in the field of education,” said Roy Teel, a former principal of Broughton High. “I think people would call him tough, but I never heard any negative comment about him.”
If there was something going on at Broughton, Holliday was there, his daughters said. He shoveled coal when the heat went out in the winter. And he implemented a no-smoking policy throughout the entire campus, even though he was a smoker. He just didn’t think smoking was something the students needed to be around, Spencer said.
“He had extremely high standards for the students and the staff at Broughton,” Teel said. “He created tremendous loyalty and enthusiasm for the school.”
When he went up to the central office, he brought those standards with him.
“He was very helpful, but not to the point where he interfered with you,” said Richard Jewell, a former Broughton principal. “If he thought you were doing something wrong, he didn’t mind telling you, but as the assistant superintendent he let the principals run the school.”
It is hard to say whether he brought his standards from Broughton home, or if he brought his standards from home to Broughton, for he seemed to instill the same sense of purpose in his family as he did in his students.
Holliday had “a hugely strong sense of right and wrong,” Spencer said. Both at school and at home he managed to communicate his expectations without raising his voice. “He had a very gentle side, a very soft side as a dad,” Spencer said. He encouraged his daughters to participate in sports, and both became college athletes. He had been a multi-sport letterman while in college as well. As the Broughton’s boys varsity basketball coach from 1946 to 1950, he guided the team to a 27-game winning streak over his last two seasons.
Holliday was raised in a poor, rural community in eastern North Carolina, the youngest of three. As a teen he worked in a fishery on the Roanoke River.
“I think it probably planted the seed for dad’s work ethic and I really think that’s where so much of who dad was started,” Spencer said.
He was the first in his family to attend college, graduating from Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College) as president of his class.
“I don’t have any memories of him where I just wasn’t incredibly proud,” Houchin said of her father. “You just always got the impression he had made differences in people’s lives, in lots of different ways.”
In addition to being dedicated to his school – his wife and daughters attended the plays, sporting events and dances alongside him – Holliday would visit shut-ins in his church, Houchin remembers.
“I think I had known I was going to name my first son Joe since I was a little girl,” Houchin said.
Throughout his career he had his best friend, J. Watson Holyfield, by his side as both a neighbor and his assistant principal at Broughton. The “Holy and Holly” duo continued into their old age when they decided as widowers to build homes next to each other at Holden Beach.
Holliday spent much of his retirement visiting with family, attending his grandchildren’s sporting events and hosting Thanksgiving at the beach until just two years ago. He moved back to the Triangle at that point to be closer to family.
This summer he had the joy of watching one of his grandsons travel to London as an Olympic swimmer. One cannot help but think his legacy played a role in that dream coming true.
“He knew what your possibilities were and he set the stage for you to achieve,” Spencer said. “He believed in high expectations.”