Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

October 18, 2005 > Phil Holmes, man of history

Phil Holmes, man of history

For many years, his name has been synonymous with the history of the Washington Township and the cities born from the area. Phil Holmes' gritty, frank descriptions of the events, people and places of days gone by has been a feature of What's Happening Magazine since its inception in 1998 and the Tri-City Voice Newspaper beginning in 2001. Always popular with our readers, these historic treatises have allowed citizens, native born and newcomers alike, to learn and experience the rich history of our area.

It is said that without knowledge of the past, a full understanding of the present and a clear vision of the future is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Phil, with help from long-time residents and historical documents, has attempted to bring the past to life, allowing us to see and feel the human side of the history equation. Well-known as a narrator and storyteller, the following is a closer look at the man behind the stories.

Philip Holmes is a native Californian by happenstance. He was born in San Bernardino, where his parents, Edith (nŽe Woods) and Warren Holmes, had traveled as migrant workers from the state of Washington. They spent two years packing apples and oranges and then returned to Washington where Phil spent his childhood with five younger siblings - two brothers (Fred and Frank) and three sisters (Dorothy, Beverly and Barbara). Phil says that he has returned to visit his siblings at "the ranch" in the Okanogan Valley of Washington near the Canadian border every year since he settled in California in 1945 following World War II.

Originally, Phil's maternal grandfather recruited people on the East Coast to settle in Washington near an irrigation project in the midst of "nothing but sand and sagebrush." By 1930, water was to about to be released to the area and Phil's father spent $200 to buy 40 acres that was destined to become a productive farm. "My father was such a good farmer that he won the state soil conservation award one year," says Phil. Farm life was filled with work and Phil grew up "always working."

An important part of farm productivity was making sure that water flowed along ditches to the farms and ranches. One of Phil's early jobs was "ditch walking," inspecting the water canals for signs of collapse. Instead of walking along the ditch, Phil rode his horse bareback, always at a gallop. He recalls his first horse was a one-eyed "cayuse" (small, native, wild horse), sold to his father for $1. Phil helped a neighboring rancher round up cattle that had strayed onto his father's farm and, in turn, the rancher arranged for Phil's mare to be bred with a purebred stallion at the local "remount station" where the Army was breeding horses for the cavalry.

The colt born to his mare "could run like the wind, but hated to get her feet wet." When crossing a ditch of water, Phil says, "She would prance a bit and then jump." He recalls that traveling across a bridge was similar story. "She would dance awhile before taking off at a full gallop to get across as fast as possible."

Growing up in a rural area, Phil attended grade school at a one-teacher school. The teacher later became his aunt when she married his favorite uncle. She had promoted Phil from the 6th grade directly to 8th grade and he recalls that when he left the school and "got to town" - Tanasket, Washington - for high school, he had difficulty catching up with his grade level. Phil says that growing up in an area where many town and city names were of Native American origin - Tanasket named for Chief Tanasket, Similkameen, etc. - you learned to spell phonetically. "That proved to be a good thing," he comments with a laugh. "When I became a teacher, it really helped that my vowels were pure, not regional."

Phil's favorite teacher in high school kept telling him that he should go to college. "I didn't have any plans to go to college. I was just going to farm and drive truck, things like that." Persistence won over Phil and when he graduated, he decided to give it a try. "I stayed out a year and then went to Whitworth College in Spokane and just about flunked out." Many of the students were naval officer candidates and had much more background in mathematics than Phil. He says the classes were beyond his training. "I didn't have the faintest idea of what they were talking about and decided to go back to farming."

Following the war years, a "cowboy friend" talked Phil into going back to college. "I sold my car which wasn't much anyhow and my saddle, which I hated to part with, to get enough money to go." We went to La Verne College in Southern California and upon arrival asked if there were any girls that could teach them how to play tennis. Although Phil claims they really wanted to learn how to play tennis, he says, "it really didn't turn out that way." One of the girls was very athletic and his future wife, (Grace) Louise Jones, the Commissioner of Athletics.

An older and wiser student, Phil excelled in his classes but Louise, a senior, graduated and began teaching in Fresno. Soon thereafter, Phil followed her to Fresno and worked in a furniture storage facility. After a couple of weeks hauling furniture, he knew this was not what he wanted to do for the next thirty years and began looking for a teaching job. A shortage of teachers was in his favor, but the lack of schooling kept him from qualifying for a credential.

After several attempts to be hired as a teacher, the local Superintendent of Schools told Phil that he had an opening for a tough job and if Phil would accept the position, a credential would be no problem. The school was "off the pavement" at a migrant labor camp in the cotton fields on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Phil was shown a little cabin similar to what the migrant workers lived in and was told he could live there. A room at the school was assigned to him with third and fourth graders and with that, the Superintendent left.

"I had never taught a day in my life; I had never had one lesson in how to teach," says Phil. He says the experience of growing up in a one room school and hearing everyone recite and helping the younger students with their lessons was useful. He also notes that he had plenty of brothers and sisters to help with schoolwork. "It must have worked because the Superintendent came back in a month, said I did a good job and had another job for me." This new job was at Westside Elementary School "on the pavement."

Being on the pavement was much better since in the winter, it was difficult to travel on muddy roads. The principal's wife, Mrs. Gunderson, was a "Master Teacher" and helped Phil learn how to teach. He says the room had 50-60 kids - 4th grade on one side and 5th on the other. "Each of us took one side of the room and she told me what to do. She was a wonderful teacher." With his move "to the pavement," Phil drove the bus, taught Boys and Girls Physical Education for 7th and 8th grade as well as teaching his classroom. Phil stayed at Westside for six years and during that time, he and Louise were married and both taught at that school.

The school was a migrant school so the enrollment varied drastically with the seasons. When school opened in September, total enrollment would be approximately 500 and later in the year, when cotton season began, the population would double. Phil says that sometimes he would drop off 12 kids at a labor camp on a Friday and pick up 30 kids the next Monday morning. "I learned a lot." From then on, he went to night school and summer school continuously, finally spending his final year to complete his degree back at Whitworth College. He earned a bachelor's degree with a major in Science.

He stayed on for another year taking science classes in the daytime and education classes at night, picking up any work he could on the side to support the family. Working toward a Masters Degree in Education, Phil decided that since he already had quite a bit of experience in the classroom, he would do his thesis in a different area - local history. After some debate with his instructors, he was allowed to proceed. Many hours were spent at courthouses, newspaper offices, interviewing people, writing letters and became fascinated with the pursuit of local history. He says, "That interest has never left me." Phil's uncle offered to pay for medical school and bring him into his practice as a partner. At this point, Phil was 30 years old and had two children. Wrestling with his options, Phil finally decided to accept a teaching position in California.

"I got my first job as a teacher with a credential in a small, 3-teacher school where I was also the principal in Lockwood near Hunter-Leggett Military Reservation in Central California." Phil drove the bus and also taught night school to military personnel who were working toward their GED (General Educational Development) certification. "I loved the area and found it hard to leave," but finally moved to the Fremont area in the late '60's. Phil spent his first year in Fremont, working for the personnel office hiring teachers for the district. He says, "I like teaching the best, but it seemed like I was cut out to be a principal." Phil served as principal at Mattos Elementary School for 10 years and Gomes Elementary School for 7 years. "They were great schools." He says the key to a good school is the parents. In 1984, Phil retired from the Fremont Unified School System, but was far from slowing down.

With additional time following retirement, the lure of local history once again called to Phil. He says that many people were new to the area and interested in local history. For 8 years, Phil and Dr. Robert Fisher taught a class in local history for Ohlone College. "Local history is important for people to figure out who they are, where they came from and their purpose in life." He adds, "This is where you are and the place to you can make a contribution."

Mr. Holmes is active with the Fremont Museum of Local History and Mission Peak Heritage Foundation. Phil is a writer with the Tri-City Voice and has published several books on local history including Two Centuries at Mission San Jose, 1797-1997; Images of America, Niles, Fremont and a newly published book, Images of America, Irvington, Fremont, both co-authored by Jill Singleton.

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