Wally Holm’s life may not be a rags to riches story, but it is riveting. Holm grew up in a dangerous area of Chicago during the 1930s and ’40s. He had no intention of remaining there.
“Me and some friends decided to take an adventure to get out of Chicago,” Holm said. “One of my cousins and I wound up in San Francisco with no job and no money. My mother cried when I said we were going. My dad said, ‘They’ll be back when they’re hungry.’ My dad was right.”
His dad may have been right, but he couldn’t predict the turns their fortunes would take.
“We started hitchhiking back to Chicago,” he said. “We met a guy at a gas station. The guy working there was from Chicago. We hit it right off and he said, ‘You guys don’t need to go back. They’re logging up in Oregon. They’re hiring.’”
As the young men were on their way to sign their youth away, fate took yet another hand in the matter.
“We had found $20 in the federal building when we tried to join the service,” Holm said. “We were desperate, we hadn’t eaten for three days, we were sleeping in bus stations and train stations. So when we saw that money my cousin scooped it up. We went out and ate some hamburgers and spent the last of it getting to Oregon to get jobs in the logging business.”
They found jobs.
“We found a job at the U.S. Forest Service,” Holm said. “The guy at the employment agency asked if we wanted to work in a park. I said ‘No! We got parks in Chicago that are war zones. I don’t want to work in a park, but how big is it?’ He said it was about 250 miles long and about 80 miles across. We got jobs working with a fire crew. They had lookout towers. Each one of us took a lookout.”
For a brief moment, our heroes were flush with cash.
“We couldn’t spend our money up there on a mountain top,” Holm said, “so when we came back down we were fat with cash. We booked passage on the City of San Francisco. I had a new lever action rifle, we had new clothes.”
As they settled back in to life in Chicago they understood Thomas Wolfe’s admonition ‘You can’t go home again.’
“We came back to Chicago,” Holm said. “Nobody missed us. While we were there one of my buddies told me I ought to think about joining the Air Force. All I wanted was an education. I asked him why I should join the Air Force and he said they had every kind of school there you could think of. So I joined the Air Force, went to radio school, learned about electronics.”
Holm was finding an outlet to express and develop his ambitions.
“See, where I grew up to be a good guy, you had to be a bad guy,” Holm said. “You had to be a jerk, not pay attention in class and flunk tests. We took a smoke break one day in radio school. I wasn’t doing well in radio school. There was a guy over a bit talking and laughing and having a good time. He was a really nice guy and he was getting good grades. That was a turning point for me.
“Pretty soon I was getting good grades. School lasted 52 weeks. At the end of school they held him over and me over for instructors. We were both top of the class. I really got into electronics then.”
Holm left the Air Force about 1952 and started work at the Ford Aircraft Engine Plant in Chicago. It was there that he learned how to transcend his past.
“An engineer at the plant said I should go to college. My high school record was not good. No college would talk to me. He said he had the same problem, so he went to a junior college, got a good grade point average and then applied at a university. I went to Wilson Junior College in Chicago. They had to take me because I was a U.S. citizen. I was in pre-engineering.”
At the junior college, Holm began learning his way around higher education.
“My adviser looked at my class schedule and said I couldn’t handle 21 hours. I didn’t know anything about college. Twenty-one hours isn’t even a day. He sent me to see the dean. The dean had my transcript. He said, ‘You can’t do this, Mr. Holm.’ I was 21 at the time. I told him, ‘You’re looking at my high school records. I’m a married man now. I’ve got children.’”
Holm figured if he had a chance he could make it work.
“I told him, ‘Let me make a deal with you,” Holm said.’” “’Let me take these 21 hours and halfway through I’ll get a note from each instructor. If you don’t like what I’m doing I’ll drop whatever you say.’ He agreed. So at mid-term I got a note from each teacher, and I had a B+ average. He let me stay.
“I graduated from Wilson and went down to the University of Illinois. I took the mechanical engineering and the general engineering curriculum. By the time I graduated we had two children.”
As a science fiction fan, Holm had dreamt of working in rocketry.
“I used to read about the X-15,” he said. “We had companies come down and talk to us. A guy asked me if I’d like to work on the X-15. I’d have been happy to paint the numbers on it. The X-15 was the first manned rocket plane. After that mission petered out, I went to Rocketdyne. I worked on the Atlas rocket engines.”
The Holms have been in Roswell since 1968. They decided to settle down and give their kids a stable home, so he started teaching electronics.
Holm gestured toward his wife during the interview and said, “I want to tell you something about this beautiful lady.
“I got a call from Las Vegas, Nevada,” Holm said, “he asked me if I’d want to change my job. I said, ‘Not no, but hell no.’ Then they said, ‘How would you feel about a 30 percent increase in wages.’ I said, ‘Not yes, but hell yes.’
So I said to Ellen, ‘It looks to me like, if we’re going to stay with the rocket business, we’re gonna do a lot of moving. If you don’t think you can handle it, then I need to change jobs, and I’ll do that.’ We’d just bought a house in California and we loved it there. She said to me, ‘OK. I don’t want to leave here but I know you love the rockets.’ That’s my wife. 67 years.”
Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at email@example.com.