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Peace Corps led Belle native to adventure-filled life abroad

January 6, 2019
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This Nov. 20 1018 photo shows Engineer, project manager and consultant Bob Holliday as he talks about where his life has taken him since his fateful decision to join the Peace Corps in 1973 during an interview in Charleston, W.Va. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

BELLE, W.Va. (AP) — In El Salvador in the late 1980s, Bob Holliday remembered taking his children up to the attic to watch military helicopters exchange fire with rebels.

“They used to shoot so many rounds the helicopters didn’t need their propellers,” Holliday said. “They would just sort of float there.”

Brass would rain on the tops of houses.

In post-soviet Moscow of the mid-1990s, as Vladamir Putin rose to power, Holliday weathered threats of violence against his family while he built homes for returning Russian soldiers stationed in the Baltic states.

“Negotiations could get tough,” he said. “If you pushed, they pushed back harder.”

“The general director, the guy who replaced me, got 11 bullets between him and his driver, two weeks after I left,” Holliday said.

From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, he served as the Director of Project Management for the University of Chicago, where he worked with the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and was befriended by a talented, young attorney named Michelle, who was married to an up-and-coming Illinois state senator named Barack.

Sitting around the dinner table of Shauna Steadman, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Morocco, Holliday’s story comes out in a gush.

He has a lot to say. Over the course of his nearly 70 years, Holliday has helped to build roads, homes and factories in Central America, the United States and Russia. He met and married the love his life.

Together, they raised a family.

He was also a witness to the world changing in the last couple of decades of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st.

He has lived a life he could never have imagined — and none of it, Holliday said, would have been possible without the Peace Corps.

Holliday was born at Kanawha Valley Hospital in 1950. He grew up in Belle. One of three brothers, his father worked for DuPont. His mother worked at the hospital. He went to DuPont High School and graduated in 1968, uncertain of what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

He enrolled at West Virginia Technical College in Montgomery, which was close to home and allowed him to keep his job at Kroger.

Civil engineering interested him, but not everybody thought he was cut out for it, he said.

Through a girlfriend, he heard one of his former teachers had said, “He’ll never get through it.”

Holliday called it a “watch this” moment.

He needed the challenge.

Holliday said he buckled down, earned his degree and even got the chance to thank the teacher for pushing him.

With graduation looming for Holliday in December 1972, the then 22-year-old still wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with his life, but he liked what he’d heard about AmeriCorps VISTA.

The program was the idea of President John F. Kennedy, who imagined it as a national service program to help alleviate poverty — a domestic Peace Corps.

VISTA was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnston in 1964. Future governor and West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller served as a VISTA volunteer in 1964 and 1965.

“I’d always admired the Rockefellers,” Holliday said.

He signed up to join the program at college. A couple of weeks later, a VISTA representative called him at home and said, “Sorry, we can’t use a civil engineer right now.”

Baffled, Holliday said, “You can send me to a reservation in New Mexico or a playground in Detroit. I don’t have to do engineering. I just want to serve.”

The VISTA recruiter forwarded him on to the Peace Corps.

“But I didn’t want to do that,” Holliday said. “The Peace Corps was two years outside the country.”

The Peace Corps said they had lots of places they could send him. They asked what he thought about Iberia or Venezuela.

“If I was going, I wanted to go to the Fiji Islands,” he joked. “I had dreams of meeting women in grass skirts — and then I would write my mother for a lawnmower.”

His mother didn’t think he was that funny.

He said she told him, “I’m not worried. You had a lawnmower in the garage for years and you never used it.”

A couple of weeks later, just as he was leaving for his last final, Holliday got another call from the Peace Corps.

“What about Costa Rica?”

“Where’s that?” he asked.

“Oh, don’t worry,” the agent told him. “We just need you to tell us yes or no.”

Holliday asked, “If I say yes and I don’t like it, can I go someplace else?”

“Oh, sure,” the agent told him, which Holliday said wasn’t true.

The graduating engineer said he needed time to think it over. They told him they’d call him the next day. So Holliday talked it over with his family and friends, and he was on a plane to Puerto Rico at the start of 1973 for Peace Corps training at Catholic University.

He also had to learn to speak Spanish.

“I was terrible,” he said.

After three months, the Peace Corps sent Holliday to San Jose, Costa Rica, with a group of volunteers. They landed on a Monday during Holy Week. “It’s a big celebration,” he said. “The Peace Corps couldn’t do anything with us. They told us to sit tight and find something to do until they could get us all placed.”

After a couple days of loafing, Holliday and some of the other volunteers wound up in a Mexican restaurant eating tacos when a group of young, local women walked in.

Holliday’s friends got him to go over and talk to the women for all of them.

“You’ll talk to anyone,” they said.

Holliday went over and asked the women in broken Spanish if there was a club nearby where they played American music.

The women nodded. They were happy to give directions.

Then Holliday asked if they’d like to come along with them.

“They all kind of huddled and then said no,” he said. But Holliday did get the phone number of a cute, dark-eyed girl named Maria.

The two fell in love fast.

“That was 45 years ago,” Maria said.

The Peace Corps sent Holliday to southern Costa Rica to work on roads and water systems, while Maria remained in the city.

Holliday got back and forth on a motorcycle the Peace Corps supplied him with.

After months of dates, Holliday went to ask Maria’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Maria’s family was very conservative and very Catholic.

Holliday was a long-haired foreigner with an uncertain future — and he wasn’t Catholic.

Maria’s father said no.

“Well, that’s too bad,” Holliday told him. “I wanted you to go to the wedding.”

After some hemming and hawing, Maria’s father relented. They negotiated a July wedding, but Maria said her family didn’t approve of Bob for years.

It took a while for them to come around, but she said they were just meant to be. Good fortune followed them.

While traveling on his motorcycle to see Maria, Holliday lost the wedding bands and Maria’s engagement ring.

“They just fell out of my rain jacket,” he said.

Desperate, Holliday drove back to where he thought he might have lost them and went into a local Catholic church radio station. He got the station to let him go on the air and issue a bulletin about the lost rings.

“Then he and some friends went into a bar to drink some beers,” Maria said.

Before they were through, a kid who’d spotted the rings on the road found Holliday in the bar.

Maria’s family still didn’t think much of him. Holliday said the wedding’s guest list included 300 people. Holliday was allowed to invite 10 people, so he went to the Peace Corps office in San Jose and posted an open invitation that read “Free food! Free drink! Everyone invited!”

Peace Corps volunteers turned out in force to eat and drink their share.

“My family did eventually warm up to him,” Maria said. “It just took a while.”

After the couple married, the Peace Corps moved Holliday back to Costa Rica’s capital. He stayed with the organization for another year and a half, which led to a job opportunity with canned food giant Del Monte, helping the company expand their fruit plantations in Costa Rica. A two-year posting turned into 15 years.

In 1988, the U.S. government hired Holliday to help get the construction of a new embassy in Costa Rica back on track. By then, he knew his way around the country and knew how to get the job done.

“The state department was so happy they offered me a job,” he said.

Holliday flew to Washington for a final interview and met Jack Whitman, who had done work on Yeager Airport in Charleston.

Whitman took him aside and said he thought he and Holliday were a lot alike. Whitman hated being a bureaucrat and thought Holliday would hate it, too. Instead of the state department job, he offered to introduce him to a project management group, which did construction projects for the U.S. government.

It seemed like a better fit for Holliday, too. They hired him immediately and sent him to work on a new embassy in El Salvador.

By 1989, El Salvador was late in a bloody civil war. The Salvadoran government was backed by the U.S. government, while communist rebel groups were backed by the Soviet Union. The horror stories of death squads and terrorism on both sides of the conflict became legendary — not that Holliday knew much about any of that.

All he really cared was that the job was in Central America near Costa Rica.

He said, “I know this. It’ll be a cakewalk.”

Maria chimed in, “It wasn’t. It was a war zone.”

Holliday moved to El Salvador first and worked for a few months before sending for his family. It seemed safe enough in the capital near the U.S. embassy, but then the fighting intensified around them.

“We were under siege for several months,” he said.

Holliday said he got used to the gunfire. It became background noise. He said he remembered talking on the phone with his brother about getting tickets to a WVU bowl game.

His brother heard the shooting over the line and asked, “What’s that?”

“Probably gunfire,” Holliday remembered telling him. “Might be an explosion. Do you think you can get us some tickets?”

Toward the end, civilians were ordered to stay in their homes.

Maria said the houses around the embassy had safe rooms with reinforced walls built into them. When the fighting intensified outside, the family went inside with their basset hound, locked the heavy door and slept on the floors.

To pass the time, they worked puzzles with their sons and listened to the radio.

The Hollidays’ youngest son, Jason, now an attorney in Charleston at Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso PLLC, remembered the time and that the fighting around the family’s house got intense for three weeks toward the end of 1991.

He would have been about 12 and recalled watching a helicopter flying over top of their house.

“That was interesting,” he said.

When a cease-fire was declared, Holliday’s state department contact told him to “go fishing. We’ll call you back when it’s all over.”

They never went back.

A few months later, Holliday took a job in St. Louis, Missouri, helping to build and expand operations for General Mills and Nabisco. It was a break from the threat of violence but introduced him to racism.Until he came to Missouri, he’d never heard his children called “spic” or taunted in the lunchroom about tacos.

In 1995 Holliday was offered a job in Russia.

Following the end of the Cold War, Russian troops were being withdrawn from the former Soviet republics, but Holliday said it was a delicate situation. The Russians didn’t have anywhere to put them.

The Russians had plenty of land, but they had no housing for them and wanted help with the construction.

President Bill Clinton, in an effort to keep the peace, agreed and brought in contractors like Holliday to build apartment buildings and housing developments.

It was dangerous work, Holliday said.

Russia in the mid-1990s was turning into a kleptocracy run by oligarchs and mobsters. The country was rife with corruption, graft and violence.

Holliday said murder and the threat of murder was often used as a negotiating tactic, but Maria said they loved Moscow.

“It was so beautiful,” she said.

The culture, the art and the music of the country were very rich. The people were welcoming and kind — except for those looking to skim a dishonest dollar from the Americans.

Maria said the day-to-day pressure made her husband sweat through his shirts, even during the frigid Russian winters.

“I told him, ‘You can’t keep doing this,’” she said. ”‘It’s going to kill you.’”

They stayed in Russia for two years and then came back to the U.S., where Holliday took a job with the University of Chicago as the director of project management, overseeing a variety of construction jobs worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

While in Chicago, he said he worked with the city of Chicago and the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, among others, and fought to include minorities in the work.

Holliday said he got some pushback from other contractors and different officials about being inclusive. When someone asked why a redneck from West Virginia cared so much about giving jobs to people who weren’t white, he told them about taking his family to St. Louis.

“I know what it’s like to feel excluded,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be marginalized.”

While in Chicago, he met Michelle Obama, who worked for the university’s hospital. They joked around and became casual friends.

“She got me involved in some hospital projects,” he said. “A really remarkable and warm lady.”

In 2005, shortly after her husband, Barack, joined the U.S. Senate, Holliday accepted a job to return to Moscow to oversee work related to Federation Towers, Europe’s tallest building. A few weeks before he and his wife left, Holliday said he ran into Michelle at a restaurant.

“I heard you’re leaving us for Moscow?” the future first lady said, and Holliday nodded that it was true.

“Why?” she asked.

Holliday said he sighed and said it was his neighborhood.

“It’s really going downhill.”

The Obamas had just bought a house a few blocks away.

Michelle laughed.

The Hollidays said Russia was better in 2005. They enjoyed the finery of Russian culture while Holliday worked, but then in 2008, the housing bubble burst. Banks collapsed, and markets became unstable. Holliday said he was lucky. He started his own consultancy firm and landed a job working in Crete for a cash-rich Russian who was building luxury housing.

“This was stuff that was, like, 10,000 euros a square foot,” he said.

He followed that job up with a short position in Azerbaijan, then they came back to West Virginia for 13 months to care for his very ill mother.

After she passed away, the couple returned to Costa Rica, where they spend most of their time.

Holliday looks back on his own life with a sense of amazement and gratitude.

“You join the Peace Corps because you want to give back,” he said. “But you really don’t realize how many doors doing that opens up. Being part of the Peace Corps gave me so much. You go to do good, but so much good happens to you.”

Now, in his late 60s, Holliday works only as much as he wants to, which isn’t a lot.

They get back to the U.S. to visit their sons — attorney Jason in Charleston and Sean, an orthodontist, in Hawaii — and their grandchildren.

Maria said she’s been trying to talk her husband into starting over, returning to the Peace Corps.

“We could do it together,” she said.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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