State Politics

August 22, 2014

Holden, first African American to head NC Highway Patrol, dies

Richard W. Holden Sr., who grew up on a Wendell farm, served five years as commander of the NC State Highway Patrol.

Retired Col. Richard W. Holden Sr. of Cary, who served for five years as the first African-American commander of the N.C. Highway Patrol, died Thursday. He was 67.

Holden took charge of the Highway Patrol in 1999 after a series of scandals sidelined a string of his predecessors, with four men having moved through the top position in just four years. Five more have followed since Holden’s retirement in 2004 after a 35-year career with the statewide law enforcement agency.

Col. Bill Grey, who took command of the Highway Patrol last year, remembered Holden as a “caring and charismatic” leader.

“He was going to treat everybody with respect and look after them,” Grey said. “When he walked in the room, you knew who he was. He was very humble – but if you wondered, hey, who’s going to run this thing, it was him. He was a beacon for people.”

Holden grew up on a Wendell farm and graduated from N.C. A&T State University. In 1969, he became one of the first six African Americans to join the Highway Patrol. He said later he had been inspired by a state trooper who came to his high school class to talk about driver safety in the early 1960s.

“He acted like he was dedicated to his work,” Holden recalled in 1993. “These were things my dad instilled in me – be proud, whatever you are.”

His Highway Patrol career took him to postings across the state. When he was promoted to major in 1993, he was put in charge of internal affairs – investigating other troopers accused of improprieties.

Later, while he was the patrol commander, Holden disciplined several troopers for sexual misdeeds that would provide years of titillating headlines. He was tasked with merging the state’s motor carrier enforcement officers – formerly with the Division of Motor Vehicles – into the Highway Patrol.

“That was a tough merger of two agencies with different organizational identities, and today you can’t tell the motor carrier officers apart from troopers who were always on the patrol,” Grey said.

Holden was criticized at points during his career, with some complaints that he favored black troopers. Troopers were accused during Holden’s tenure of bias against black and Hispanic motorists, but a study by two universities found that no systematic racial profiling had occurred.

Some patrol commanders who preceded and followed Holden became political embarrassments for the governors who had promoted them. But his retirement in June 2004 was unforced and accompanied by widespread praise.

In 2000, a Burlington physician wrote a letter to The News & Observer to laud the state’s “gracious” top trooper for stopping on a rainy evening to change the doctor’s flat tire. “I am so proud that North Carolina has men of his caliber in law enforcement,” Dr. A.J. Ellington said.

Holden’s survivors include his wife, Sandra Holden; daughter, Shonda Holden Eason Vaughn of Clayton; son, Richard W. Holden Jr.; and eight sisters and brothers. Funeral arrangements, being handled by Lea Funeral Home of Raleigh, were not complete Friday.

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