When Gene Holderness was introduced years ago to Paul Volcker, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Edina businessman reacted in a way that few would dare.
Holderness strangled himself with his own tie and playfully yelled, “You ruined my business!” It was true in the sense that the Fed’s interest rate hikes had hurt Holderness’ housing development company. But he meant it to disarm one of the country’s most powerful men, and Volcker couldn’t stop laughing.
“He always knew the right thing to do,” recalled former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, who introduced the two men. “Nobody else would have thought to behave that way in the Senate dining room to the chairman of the Fed. I’ll bet Volcker never forgot that.”
Holderness died July 30 at age 80, leaving a legacy as a man who had the instinct for the right choices and the right words. After founding Minnesota Homes, Holderness held management positions at three law firms — Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; Dorsey & Whitney; and Leonard, Street & Deinard. He also ran campaigns for Durenberger, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, former state Rep. Keith Downey and former state Sen. Roy Terwilliger.
Holderness’ instinct served him well during Christmas 1962, when he went on a first date with Susie Fry and resolved to marry her. They were married for 54 years, had four children and raised a teenage Vietnamese refugee as a foster child. Holderness took his family on trips to hike amid bears, climb glaciers and ride snowmobiles, and got his wife and kids into inaugural balls to meet celebrities after President Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984.
“As a parent now, I can’t believe all of the things we did,” said Brooks Wilkening, one of Holderness’ daughters. “He believed in exploring and learning.”
Holderness’ charm and faith in others helped them to achieve, too. Wilkening said she always received notes of encouragement in college — a quote or a Bible verse. Susie Holderness said she wouldn’t have pursued a master’s degree in the 1960s without her husband’s confidence.
“There was nothing out of reach with him,” his wife said.
Holderness had no political experience in 1982 when he ran the first re-election bid for Durenberger, a close friend. Holderness was a maverick at a time when Reagan’s unpopularity in Minnesota was dragging down Republicans, Durenberger said. On the Sunday before the election, with Durenberger’s campaign short on cash, Holderness persuaded Reagan’s chief of staff to let Durenberger address Minnesotans instead of the president on the time slots paid for by the Reagan re-election committee. Durenberger’s narrow lead increased by Election Day.
“I couldn’t have had anybody better, who knew me, knew what I was capable of, knew Minnesota, knew the environment in which we were campaigning,” Durenberger said.
Holderness grew up in Hinsdale, Ill., a tennis and basketball star, earned an athletic scholarship at the University of Wisconsin and later studied at Harvard Business School.
Holderness helped save Robins Kaplan, according to Durenberger. The firm was losing star attorneys, Durenberger said, and Holderness worked the phones and kept the rest in the fold.
After his retirement at 72, a neurological disease emerged, causing him to struggle with conversation and abstract thinking. He could still play piano — having been able to play songs by ear throughout his life — and golf. Friends who had known his kindness returned it by taking him out daily for exercise, nine holes or a hot dog. “We saw the essence of who he really was,” his wife said. “He was still gentle. He was still sweet. You knew he was very caring.”
He is survived by his wife; sons Matt and Alex; daughters Brooks Wilkening and Ashley Swanda; brother Alan, and 10 grandchildren. Services have been held.