I FIRST met Dennis Holt at Keens Steakhouse in 1981, which seems appropriate, for Dennis usually seemed at least as old as Keens, with its countless clay pipes hanging from the ceiling, its naughty odalisque over the bar, and its banquet rooms named for Teddy Roosevelt and Lillie Langtry.
Dennis, who died last month at the age of 77, was, over the course of his career, a longtime reporter for Brooklyn community newspapers, a Congressional chief of staff, a devoted family man and a good friend. But as we came to discover, he was also something much more—something few of us expected. With his brush mustache, his round glasses, and his largely bald, prodigious head, Dennis did not look quite like anyone alive nowadays. He resembled more a reporter or maybe a ward heeler from the 19th century. Tall and gangly, he had long, tapered fingers that were usually busy firing up another of his awful, mentholated cigarettes, which he spent more time gesticulating with than actually smoking. When he stood with his jacket pushed back and a hand on his hip — a characteristic pose — you half-expected to catch a glimpse of a watch fob.
He was someone who had the gift of being perpetually amazed or outraged by life, expressing himself in colorful gusts of astonishment. Even his profanity was wonderfully antiquated, his favorite exclamation, “Jesus jumped-up Christ!” He loved many things, first and foremost his children, and Susan, his dauntlessly cheerful, extremely understanding wife of 40 years. He was a fiercely partisan Democrat, and utterly devoted to the borough of Brooklyn. His spare time was spent poring over local street directories from the 1880s, inventing political board games and reading about the Civil War.
He enjoyed his pleasures. The cigarette habit stretched to three packs a day, and for a thin man he had a remarkable capacity for alcohol. When I worked for him at a Wall Street trade association he would take me out to lunch, where I would have one gin and tonic and be on the floor for the rest of the afternoon. Dennis would have two or three martinis, which just seemed to make him perky.
HE was, in short, a classic New York eccentric, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Such individuals tend to stick with the city through the hard times, when more sensible people might be tempted to abandon it. Dennis was employed for many years as a public relations man for Union Carbide, but when the company moved to Connecticut he stayed behind.
The family lived in a ramshackle old brownstone in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. The neighborhood was going through some dark days, and their home was broken into more than half a dozen times. One evening, a burglar made his way brazenly up to the second floor and flipped on the light in the room where the Holts’ 4-year-old son was sleeping. Dennis, clad only in his pajamas, grabbed a Civil War dress sword off the wall and chased the intruder down the stairs and into the street, waving the sword over his head and bellowing at the top of his voice.
“You couldn’t have buttered toast with that thing,” Susan remembered of his weapon, but it did the job. When a responding police officer asked, “What are people like you doing in a place like this?” Dennis told him, “We’re crazy!”
Rather than give up, he worked tirelessly to promote and beautify his adopted borough. He preached the gospel of Brooklyn’s revival to anyone who would listen—even when they had stopped listening. All of us who knew him loved him.
Then, in 1993, a book came out that made us see him in a whole new light: E. Culpepper Clark’s superb history of the long fight to integrate the University of Alabama, The Schoolhouse Door. It begins with the effort to enroll a young black woman named Autherine Lucy at the university in February 1956. And there, to our surprise, was Dennis Holt.
The appearance of the incredibly courageous Ms. Lucy triggered wild rioting by Alabama students, considerably augmented by outside agitators. The mob roamed freely about the campus for hours, screaming racial epithets, setting fires, attacking a passing black motorist, and even pelting the wife of the university president with eggs and rocks when she tried to appeal for calm. Ms. Lucy was fortunate to escape with her life.
Dennis, we discovered, was president of the arts and sciences college council of Alabama at the time, “brilliant, eloquent and popular,” and the national college debate champion. Along with a handful of other brave students, he turned away a group of drunken rioters seeking to break into the university president’s residence. Dennis and his companions told them, “You’re not going anywhere.”
The next day, Alabama’s board of trustees gave in to the mob, and voted to ban Ms. Lucy from campus for her own safety. It was a dishonor that Dennis and his fellow student leaders were not willing to share. They held a public meeting, in which Dennis described the people he had kept from entering the president’s mansion as “two high school boys and a man so drunk he could barely lurch.” Turning them back wasn’t hard: “That’s all it took — just a little resistance.”
“America has been called to greatness and we, too, have been called,” Dennis continued. “We have a chance to tell the world that this, our student government, is not run by vandals, goons or thugs. Let us say here this evening that we live by democratic means and democratic methods and that we’re opposed to mob violence and mob rule.”
He offered a resolution “that mob violence be denounced at the University of Alabama and that means be found to protect the future personal safety of the students, white or Negro — and the faculty and the reputation of the university.”
“And then he was finished, and they applauded him for 35 seconds, which is too long to be quite proper for 60 people,” wrote the newspaperman Murray Kempton, covering the meeting for The New York Post. “They seemed to keep it going out of some need to affirm what they had waited so long to hear someone say loud and clear.”
Before we read this, so many of us who liked Dennis so much had no idea that he had done any such thing. We had no idea that he’d ever been the national debate champion. He had never mentioned it, and he had little enough to say about it once we found out, reminiscing only about how swell his friends on the Alabama football team had been, forming an ad hoc bodyguard for him around campus because they feared for his life.
Time would work its ways with Dennis, as it does with all of us. But he went on working, went on enthusing over Brooklyn as Boerum Hill turned again into a lovely neighborhood, and artisanal mayonnaise shops began to replace the burglars.
Then, very suddenly, came a collapsed lung and a bad fall. Dennis lapsed into a coma from which he did not emerge.
It is hard to believe that he could have been around near the start of the modern civil rights movement, or that all that hatred and insanity could have afflicted us such a short time ago. The obvious lesson of Dennis’s life is how a likable, colorful individual — someone who might be described as comical at times — could stand up and do the right thing when it counted the most. But then, aren’t these really the same parts to the man? He did what he believed in, he did it passionately, and he did it without worrying too much what other people thought. And if in the end he was well before his time in believing that racism was hideous nonsense, or that Brooklyn would revive and prosper, who was really the eccentric?
My favorite memory of him will always be of one Sunday when my wife and I brought over a box of St. Joseph’s Day zeppoli from a Little Italy bakery to cap one of Susan’s sumptuous dinners. These are a fantastic cream pastry, made once a year, and they bear about as much resemblance to your summer street-fair zeppole as a stromboli does to a cheese sandwich. Late on that balmy, spring afternoon, Dennis sat at the head of the table in his now flourishing home, with his family and his friends beside him, and gazed at this marvelous concoction on his plate.
“Isn’t life wonderful!” he exclaimed with his usual enthusiasm. “Isn’t life wonderful!”