There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in the Raleigh area who have a Casper Holroyd story of kindness and friendship to share. Many of them gathered Thursday at Holroyd’s beloved church to tell their stories and say goodbye to a remarkable man.
Holroyd died last week at 86, shortly after being diagnosed with lymphoma. He lived a jam-packed life and was energetic until the end.
Holroyd was active in the public arena and served as chairman of the old Raleigh school board in the 1960s and ’70s. He supported school integration when many whites in Raleigh were reluctant.
As his long-time friend Burley Mitchell, former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, noted in our news obituary, Holroyd’s friendliness and good listening skills helped smooth the path to integration and eventually toward a merger with Wake County schools. That merger led to the development of a strong public school system, which helped attract newcomers from across the country, prevented flight to the suburbs and kept the city’s core strong.
So Holroyd, who also served four terms in the state House, had an enduring impact on this community’s public life. But he also helped change Raleigh on a more personal level, one person at a time.
It was those joyous one-on-one interactions that the Rev. Rick Clayton, his pastor at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, described to a knowing audience of about 700 people gathered Thursday afternoon for Holroyd’s memorial service. Clayton described Holroyd, a strong extrovert, as “a man with a plan to pull people together.” Holroyd’s happiness was contagious.
Clayton told about the time he went to a Duke men’s basketball game in Cameron Indoor Stadium with Holroyd, a 1948 Duke graduate, former head manager of the football team and avid Blue Devil fan. Holroyd introduced Clayton to a who’s who of Duke people, including the university president. Holroyd, who seemed to always have his camera with him, took photographs of Clayton with many of them, including the Blue Devil mascot.
After the game, as they were driving away from Cameron, Holroyd spotted a Duke cheerleader walking. Holroyd pulled over, explained that he had his pastor with him and asked whether he could take a photo with her. Of course she said yes – no one ever said no to Casper.
“He was a best friend to every single one of us,” Clayton said. “Your great moments were his great moments.”
Clayton remembered Holroyd’s amazing energy level, even into his 80s. Holroyd and his second wife, Mary, ran 19 marathons together. (They married in 1982, about 10 years after Holroyd’s first wife, Betty Ann, died. Mary is a former member of the Wake school board.)
The JOY Class
While Holroyd, an insurance agent, was a runner and Duke loyalist with many interests, his strongest passion was the JOY Class, the youth Sunday school class he started at Hayes Barton Methodist 50 years ago. JOY stands for Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. He remained the driving force behind the class, which now has about 200 members, up until a few weeks ago.
Holroyd phoned each student on his or her birthday. He inquired about their friends and families. He attended students’ ball games, swim meets, chorus concerts and dance recitals with his faithful camera; a week later, photos of the student would arrive in the mail at his or her home.
Holroyd encouraged the adult leaders of the class to befriend the students, who are in sixth through 12th grades, especially students who might have appeared lonely, troubled or shy. Several of today’s adult leaders were JOY students decades ago and have known Holroyd for most of their lives.
When Holroyd was hospitalized 10 days ago and it became clear the end was near, former students and Holroyd’s JOY Class friends began emailing each other with memories of him.
Bo Walker, a Raleigh lawyer and JOY Class leader, relayed his conversations with Holroyd about how to maintain and build a strong youth program. Most important, Holroyd said, are the relationships between the students and the adults. In the JOY Class, all boundaries are knocked down, including age. “I think we are only successful because of the relationships that are formed,” Holroyd told Walker.
I first met Holroyd 30 years ago when he was running for the state legislature and I was a young reporter. In the last 10 years, when my family returned to Raleigh, Holroyd welcomed us to Hayes Barton Methodist, which my wife had attended years ago.
When Holroyd pulled me aside five years ago and asked me to teach Sunday school, I didn’t want to say no to this amazing man who had been so good to my family. But I also thought he needed to know I was Catholic.
“We’ve had people do a lot worse things than that,” he responded. Then he laughed that hearty Casper laugh; that wasn’t quite what he meant to say. “You know what I mean!” he said. With that, I became possibly the only Catholic teaching Methodist Sunday school in Raleigh.
Those of us befriended by Holroyd feel richer to have been his friend and to have seen his daily example of selflessness. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian who gave up his wealth to serve others, has been paraphrased as saying: Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.
Casper Holroyd didn’t need words.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or email@example.com; Twitter: @john_drescher