Howie Holmes, former pastor of Culpeper’s Providence Bible Church, suffered a heart attack on Feb. 20, 2018, while driving back to Culpeper from Warrenton after an outing with his 12-year-old son Nathaniel.
Holmes, 57, managed to steer the car safely off the road, crashing into a fence, but without harm to Nathaniel, who is autistic.
By the time Holmes’ daughter, Emily Jackson, arrived on the scene with her husband, emergency personnel had already whisked her father away to the nearest hospital.
“He died in the ambulance,” Jackson said. “He was so many things. It’s hard to say what a terrible loss. He was the best man I’ve ever known.”
Many in the Culpeper community are still reeling from Holmes’ unexpected death a year ago.
Last week, in Holmes’ memory, two basketball games were held at Culpeper Christian School—in an event called Hoops for Howie—between the boys and girls middle-school teams and visiting students from Fredericksburg Christian School.
“Howie taught for many years at Fredericksburg Christian School, and his wife worked there, too,” said CCS athletic director Davy Meister, who organized Tuesday’s games. “Howie loved basketball and coached the kids there, so they also were hit hard by his death.”
Holmes taught science and Bible courses at FCS, coaching basketball there for nearly 20 years, from 1988 until about 2004. After following what he considered a call to the ministry, Holmes served as pastor at Stevensburg Baptist Church, then moved on to Providence. He was pastor at the Culpeper church for almost a decade.
The Fredericksburg and Culpeper communities came together Feb. 5 for friendly competition, which also provided an opportunity to gather funds for a good cause.
“Total donations gathered added up to $1,366,” Meister said. “That’s a tribute and a credit to Howie Holmes—that shows you what kind of person he was and how many lives he touched, that so much money could be raised after one night of playing basketball.”
The money was raised for Holmes’ widow, Debbie Holmes, equally loved by both communities, who suffered a massive stroke in August, coming close to death herself. Her recovery since has been slow and difficult, but steady.
“Between Howie’s death and her own medical bills, there are some financial challenges, besides caring for their son with special needs,” Meister said. “When you’re grieving, there’s nothing that helps soothe that grief better than helping someone out, and that’s what these two communities wanted to do.”
Twelve-year-old Blake Burke was one of the players on the Culpeper team. Having been baptized by Holmes as a child, Burke remembers his former pastor fondly.
“He was really close to my dad,” Burke said. “After church, we would always talk. He would joke with me about my hair and stuff. Sometimes, coming to church his hair was poofy, or one hair always stood up, and we would laugh together about things like that.”
Introducing both teams, Meister quoted from Isaiah 40, calling attention to Holmes’ ability to connect with and lift young people in his ministry.
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength,” Meister quoted, noting how Holmes’ dedication to serving God blessed him in his efforts to bless others. Continuing the Bible quote, Meister said, “They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint.”
Appropriately, the mascot of both participating schools is the eagle.
Coaching the Fredericksburg girls was Emily Thomas, who shared that task with her sister, Suzie Medina. Thomas is director of guidance at FCS and Medina heads the marketing department.
The sisters were students of Holmes during their growing-up years.
“He taught me biology, and I went on a mission trip with him to Guatemala in 1991,” Thomas said, explaining that Holmes was one of the adult leaders on the trip, which occurred during her ninth grade year.
Holmes and his wife supervised about 20 students in helping to build, paint and furnish a school in the Central American country, one of countless such compassionate enterprises Holmes headed during his years at FCS.
“That’s how I really got to know him,” Thomas said. “There were quirky things about him, but that’s what made him fun. And you knew, when he talked to you, that he really cared. Everybody loved him, every single student—he related to us, didn’t talk down to us, he was completely genuine.”
During Medina’s senior year at FCS, Holmes was the assistant basketball coach for her team.
“He made learning fun, whether it was in the classroom or on the basketball court,” Medina shared in an email. “He never took things too seriously. He knew what was most important in life, so he had fun, and lots of it.”
Medina said she tries to find the same kind of balance in her own coaching. “I want my girls to develop a love for the game of basketball, like Howie developed in his players,” she said.
Ryder Williams, youth leader at Providence, said he tries to follow Holmes’ example in his own approach to working with young people.
“It’s hard to describe Howie. Everybody loved him,” Williams said. “He was very unique, very compassionate—kind of snarky, in a good way—honest and upright, completely dedicated to serving others.”
Williams said in his role working with youth he would meet with Pastor Holmes, and often would pattern his efforts to assist others after the way he knew Holmes would.
“I’m always trying to apply his skills to my own ministry,” Williams said, describing how Holmes would go in and do the dishes for people he visited, or give someone a ride, or clean up the house—simple, humble tasks that demonstrated how much he cared.
“When I would meet with him, sometimes I would say, ‘I got this from your playbook,’ ” Williams said.
One of Williams’ tasks after Holmes died was helping organize the celebration of life, or funeral, for his spiritual mentor. More than 900 attended the service.
“All the logistics, every roadblock that came up, people just instantly stepped up and volunteered,” Williams said. “People adored him, they would do anything for him. You need to borrow buses, don’t even worry about it. You need food, people took care of it, and a million other things. For a second, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m putting all this together pretty well,’ but shame on me for thinking that. The reality was, it was all for Howie.”
The atmosphere at CCS was excited and electric, the bleachers filled with both blue- and green-garbed fans of the two schools.
An emotional Meister welcomed everyone, speaking fondly of Holmes and his love of basketball.
“He and I could talk for hours about basketball,” Meister said. “He loved the sport, and he loved kids. Tonight, we will light up the scoreboard like he lit up our lives.”
Emily Jackson was at the game, cheering for both teams in honor of her father. That the money raised would be a gift to her mother came as a surprise to her and her family.
“When they told me, I cried with my son,” Jackson said. “It was overwhelming. My mom was speechless and my sister couldn’t believe how kind and nice it was. We’re so grateful.”
Though the Culpeper teams won both games, Meister said in an interview the next day that really, everybody won.
“I know that sounds cliché, but it’s really true,” he said, adding that both schools hope to establish Hoops for Howie as an annual event. “People were coming up to me the whole evening telling me what Howie had done for them. It seems like such a little thing, just playing a little basketball, but it’s helped lift the burden of grief for all of us as we mourn the loss of this great man.”