By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Dennis Holt, the former Brooklyn Eagle columnist who died last month at age 77, "was someone who had the gift of being perpetually amazed or outraged by life, expressing himself in colorful gusts of astonishment," the New York Times reflected on Sunday.
The tribute, by Kevin Baker on the cover of the Metropolitan section, describes Holt's unique characteristics, his life in Boerum Hill, and his determined stand against segregationist mobs at the University of Alabama in 1956.
Baker had known Holt since 1981 and worked with him at a Wall Street trade association, one of several public relations jobs Holt had before he joined the Brooklyn Phoenix in the mid-1980s and later worked for the Brooklyn Heights Press and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
The Eagle had reported, in its eulogy of Holt, that when he and his wife Susan family moved to Boerum Hill in 1971, his house was burglarized several times and a police officer asked him what someone like him was doing in the then-rundown neighborhood. "We're crazy!" he told the cop.
Baker added that during one attempted burglary, Dennis grabbed a decorative Civil War-era sword that was hanging on the wall, yelled at the intruder and chased him into the street.
As Holt might have said, in one of his colorful expressions quoted by Baker — “Jesus jumped-up Christ.”
The author recalls Holt as a “fiercely partisan Democrat” who constantly sang the praises of the borough of Brooklyn, cheered on Downtown Brooklyn’s revival, and loved poring over old historical books.
He points to Holt's enjoyment of cigarettes and alcohol during their days on Wall Street, perhaps preparing him for work in a stereotypical newsroom — although by his later years at the Eagle, he had largely abandoned both habits.
"He enjoyed his pleasures," Baker wrote. "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."
Baker retells the story, publicized in historian E. Culpepper Clark’s book “The Schoolhouse Door,” of how Holt, then a popular student leader and a national debate champion, faced down a segregationist mob that tried to prevent black student Autherine Lucy from attending classes at the University of Alabama.
After the school banned Lucy from classes, ostensibly for her own safety, Holt and other student leaders held a public meeting that denounced violence and slammed the university’s administration for giving in to “mob rule” — with the mob, as Dennis told it, consisting of "two high school boys and a man so drunk he could barely lurch."
All it took to turn them back, Dennis recalled, was "just a little resistence."
"We have a chance to tell the world that [our institution] is not run by vandals, goons or thugs," Dennis told a campus gathering, after which Murray Kempton of the NY Post reported, "they applauded him for 35 seconds, which is too long to be quite proper for 60 people. 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."
Baker says that Holt rarely spoke of the incident. He had Culpepper’s book in his library, but when asked to write an editorial on a racist incident in today’s South, referencing his own experiences, he declined to do so.
"The obvious lesson of Dennis's life is how a likeable, colorful individual — someone who might be described as comical at times — could stand up and do the right thing when it counted the most," Baker concluded.
"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?"