John Francis Holland Jr. was born on May 3, 1933 in Hawaii, where his parents, First Lieutenant John and Beatrice Holland, were stationed. The youngest of the Holland’s three children, John remembered that he “grew up around khaki, bugle calls, and cannons at daybreak” as the family accompanied John Sr. (USMA ’25) from post to post during the 30s before ending up in Washington, DC during World War II. Late in the war, Colonel Holland, then assigned to General MacArthur’s Pacific Headquarters, died in a freak aircraft accident. Life for the Hollands would never again be the same. From then on John’s father was his hero and role model. It was only natural then that John’s sights were set on West Point. Enrolled in the New York Military Academy, he was selected as first captain before graduating. He then entered West Point in 1953, the same year that his mother became assistant cadet hostess.
A member of the Class of 1957, John was assigned to Company D-1. A cadet roommate remembers him as an “amazing cadet and roommate: bright, thoughtful and funny, a superb athlete, and a fan of jazz. He was the total package, and seemed destined for a brilliant military career. When he left the Academy at the end of plebe year we were stunned.” His family recalls that he was long burdened by his decision to depart from USMA but lived his life to pay tribute to his father—and his mother—through devotion to Duty, Honor, and Country. He always cherished the fond memories and good friends he left behind, especially his companymates.
After leaving West Point, John enlisted in the Army, completed jump and pathfinder training, and joined the 11th Airborne Division before joining the U.S. Modern Pentathlon Team, then training for the 1956 Olympics. John soon mastered the skills required by the event–running, swimming, riding, fencing, and shooting—and just missed making the three-man team that won silver medals in the team competition at Melbourne. Disappointed, but not discouraged, he continued to train and compete with the team.
John’s connection with the modern pentathlon would continue throughout his life, but the pivotal event in his life occurred early on. While training in Mexico, he met Isabel Davila Romero, sister of one of Mexico’s premier epee fencers. As she tells the story, John wasted no time in proposing marriage, but it took her a little longer to say “yes.” He persisted, and in 1957 they were married in Mexico City.
Also in 1957, John left the Army to begin a career. Moving to Los Angeles, he earned a BS in electronic engineering from the Northrop Institute of Technology and worked for North American Aviation. He then went to Denver, CO, where he worked for Honeywell, earned an MBA at the University of Denver, and taught at the University of Colorado. Next he came to San Diego, CA to earn an MS in computer science from the University of California-San Diego and to begin a consulting company. Chrysler then hired him to go to Mexico, where he designed the data network linking their operations in Mexico and the United States and taught at the Instituto Politecnico Nacional. Returning to the United States, he joined a telecommunications consulting company in Ann Arbor, MI and taught at the University of Michigan before moving to Boston, MA to design and implement an international data network for Fidelity Investments.
Meanwhile, with the births of their four children, the Holland family grew. Speaking about their father and family, son John III states that “first and foremost he formed a wonderful and united family with his wife, of which he was always very proud.” Reflecting back on her parents’ marriage, daughter Isabel remarks that, “After 58 years, dad still looked at mom with googly eyes.” Their son Martin adds that “…together, they created the best family we could have ever chosen.” Daughter Ana sums it up: “With all that he valued in this whole world, he loved his family the most. He was so, so proud of his grandchildren and us, his children. And above all, he loved my mother.” When asked which accomplishment he was proudest of, John answered, “My Family.”
As the children grew older and his career matured, John’s involvement with modern pentathlon also evolved. He devoted the spare time that work and family allowed to helping others fulfill their potential as pentathletes. He served as a board member of the USA Modern Pentathlon Association for two decades and as president of the regional governing body from 1991 to his retirement in 2013. In that role he was also a vice president of the world governing body, the International Union of the Modern Pentathlon. Honoring his service, an award in his name is now given at the annual World Cup Finals to the highest ranked pentathlete from the Americas.
Following retirement from his business and academic careers, John and Isabel had settled in Bloomfield Hills, MI. But finally, even this retirement, filled with the people and activities he loved most, had to end. After a long and valiant battle with cancer, John died, surrounded by the love of his family, on December 19, 2015.
How to sum up the life of this multifaceted man?
His family knew him as:
A good father, husband, brother, son, and human being.
A gentle man, kind, modest, strong, loving and fair.
The complete person—optimistic, intelligent, educated, elegant and humble.
A lover of music, art, poetry, literature, science, and sports.
John’s own summation? “I’ve had a good life.”
- Ms. Ruth Holland-Walsh
- Mr. Frank W. Willett