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Giant donation to Air Force is tribute to dying wife

August 15, 2010
photo - Lynn and Bart Holaday Photo by SUBMITTED PHOTO
Lynn and Bart Holaday Photo by SUBMITTED PHOTO 

Bart Holaday paused, the pain evident on his face. He had discussed the benefits of Air Force’s soon-to-be-built indoor training facility. He and his wife, Lynn, gave $5 million of the roughly $16 million needed for the building. That is the largest gift the academy has received from a graduate.

He talked about winning three letters from the football team, and how the lessons he picked up from football helped him in life.

Now he was being asked why he and Lynn had given such a generous gift. The answer didn’t come easy.

“Part of it is,” Bart Holaday said, “she’s dying.”

Lynn has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease with no cure. She was diagnosed in June 2009. That news was the final impetus for Bart and Lynn Holaday to make the large donation.

She’s eager for construction, delayed as the academy waits for Congress’ approval, to begin.
“I’m hoping the academy schedules the groundbreaking for the indoor practice facility before it’s too late for me to be there!” Lynn Holaday writes in an e-mail.

The indoor practice facility will be named after the Holadays. The academy can’t announce that before the project is officially approved, but that’s the plan.

For years to come, cadets will enjoy the facility, which will have a full-size football field inside. Most of them probably won’t have any idea about the namesakes, or how the building came to be.

30 years later, they connect

Bart and Lynn Holaday took about three decades to marry each other.

They were drawn to each other at an Air Force assembly in 1964. Lynn, who was a representative for the University of New Mexico, recalls his “square jaw, broad shoulders, intense eyes.” They were on a panel together and saw each other later at a dance.

“I thought him resplendent in his dress uniform,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Bart plays the role of the typical man, not remembering the details as well as his wife.

“I noticed her right away. I remember that,” Bart said.

She heard he was applying for a Rhodes scholarship, which he was awarded and became one of four Rhodes scholars in the history of the Air Force football program.  She wrote him a note of congratulations. He wrote back. Lynn says that’s how their relationship began.

But he went to England, then Washington. He worked in the Pentagon as an economist for a few years, and then helped set up the Federal Energy Administration. He eventually went into the venture capital business, where he managed about $19 billion of investments.

They got married after college but not to each other. They didn’t speak for almost 30 years.
“It took us a long time,” Bart Holaday said. “I describe it as, she dumped me and moved on to another person. She said that wasn’t exactly the way it happened.”

Both marriages failed. Bart’s work brought him to New Mexico often, and he left a message at an office there where Lynn worked, telling her when and where to call him. Decades before, she had tried breaking him of his Wing Commander ways (Bart is one of seven football players to hold that highest rank for a cadet). The tone from an old friend sounded familiar. So she didn’t call.

“Later he called and politely invited me to have coffee with him,” Lynn wrote. “The rest is history because we picked up immediately where we’d left off some three decades earlier.”
On New Year’s Eve 1998, Bart and Lynn got married. Over the past 12 years they’ve split time between New Mexico (her home state), North Dakota (his home state) and Colorado Springs. The academy was a reason they maintained a residency here.

“We’ve long loved the academy and had sentimental attachment to it,” Bart said.  

He retired in 2001, and they spent the next few years traveling the world and enjoying life. They started philanthropic projects in their home states and at the academy. They established a scholarship in 2002 that sends an academy graduate to Exeter in Oxford – Bart’s old college. They also went to most Falcon football home games.

Life was as good as they could have dreamed.

Dying wife is ‘at peace’

Lynn Holaday has written a couple of e-mails to her friends, who are curious about her condition. The eloquently written notes have an astonishing self-awareness. She speaks about the first signs, the slurred speech and the left foot that started failing. Later there was trouble eating, walking and breathing. She recounts dreams from her sleep, in which she is an active athlete again. She jokes Lou Gehrig would be furious if he knew his name was synonymous with ALS.

She also writes about the anguish over knowing she won’t see her grandchildren grow up.
Most of all, she seems intent on providing comfort to those who know ALS will kill her.

“ALS is NOT the worst illness one can have, although if I were 32 years old I probably would think it was,” she wrote when asked about living with ALS. “I, however, am 68 and have had a full and complete life, so I don’t waste time on complaining about my fate.”

She says she isn’t in pain, and her e-mails reflect that.

After the Holadays gave the $5 million gift to the USAFA Endowment, other donations came pouring in. The endowment, which gathers private donations for projects at the academy, collected an additional $6 million shortly after the Holadays’ gift was announced. Without the largest donation, the project probably would be stalled.

“If Bart and Lynn didn’t donate what they did, we’re probably sitting here with $3 million and no specific timeline on the project,” said Mark Hille, vice president of USAFA Endowment.

Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, other coaches around the Mountain West Conference and even Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson say that indoor facilities are necessary to stay competitive in major college football. The Holadays understand and believed in the project.

They know the facility will help cadets for years. Bart hopes the lessons he learned as a fullback-turned-kicker on Air Force’s team – teamwork, fair play, determination – carry on to future generations. And there are the personal reasons for the gift.

“I want something as a tribute to Lynn,” Bart said. “That’s what’s important to me. And I’d like to have something that joins the two of us together, because our relationship has been the most important thing in my life.”

Lynn, whose father played football at Rice University, is passionate about Air Force football and believe she might have been even more excited about the gift than her husband. She asks how the team looks and hopes for an upset over Oklahoma on Sept. 18.

She laments she can’t climb Cheyenne Mountain anymore but reads books that had sat unopened, listens to music from her youth and has returned to her faith.

“I leave this life grateful and fulfilled,” she said in one of the e-mails to her friends. “I am at peace; I am not afraid.”

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