In October of 2020, my dad died from COVID. Dad was the Emergency Management Director of his county, and so he was constantly on the front lines, getting his rural community what they needed to get through this pandemic.
Back in February, I was told the Chamber of Commerce of his hometown was considering him for a posthumous award as the “Pandemic Hero” of 2020 in their annual award celebration. I was asked to write his official nomination submission, and it’s as close as I have come to writing his eulogy.
Here is my nomination letter in full, written by a grateful son who, when all is said and done, just misses his Daddy something fierce. Thanks for indulging me for putting it here.
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To the nominating committee:
My father, Hugh Hollowell, died on October 22nd of 2020, from COVID. He had lived and worked in Marshall County his entire life, barring four years in the Air Force. He raised three boys on the land he himself had grown up on, and he taught them about what it means to belong to a place and its people.
His main teaching method was his example. He served for more than 7 years as the chief of the Watson Volunteer Fire Department, coming home from long days crawling under houses as a gas company repairman to wolf down a sandwich and go back out to attend some class that would teach him how to make his community safer.
In 1989, he began a career transition to Emergency Management, when he became the first Fire Coordinator for Marshall County, and began to work for the County full time as their Emergency Management Coordinator in 1996. It was then, at 45 years old, that my dad began to flourish.
My dad had an almost superhuman ability to remain calm when everyone else was losing their head. He could diffuse anger and had the ability to make everyone feel heard, an important skill as he navigated the world of politicians, EMS frontline workers, volunteers, and career civil servants.
He was set to retire in June of 2020. He was at our house Christmas of 2019, and it was a topic he talked a lot about. He had long dreamed of travelling, but budget constraints and the responsibilities of his work and family had prevented it. He and my mom would buy a camper and drive out west and see the wide open spaces of my mother’s childhood and my father’s dreams.
When the pandemic hit, I was glad he was set to retire. I saw the way in those early days it made this 68-year-old man tired, and the fatigue in his voice was obvious over the phone. He had long been able to handle a crisis – tornados, fires, storms, bad wrecks – but this was a crisis that did not stop, and he was the person who was responsible for making sure people were protected.
He felt that responsibility heavily.
That is another thing he taught us – what it means to be responsible: To your family, to your job, to your community. So I was saddened but not surprised when he told me that he had chosen to not retire in June as he had planned.
“I can’t do it to them. I can’t leave the county in a lurch. I’m going to get them through this year, and then retire in January.”
The pandemic got worse, of course. When I would call, he would be in the truck, on his way to pick up some PPE or just coming back from delivering it to the hospital or one of the fire departments. His emails came at odd hours – 4AM, or 11:30PM, as he grabbed snatches to time from a packed day. He lamented the weight of the boxes, saying that it bothered him that he wasn’t as strong as he used to be, and he was really, really looking forward to next year, when he could finally retire.
“I’m just tired,” he said. “I’m really, really tired.”
To those of us who knew him, it wasn’t a shock he would give up his own comfort and pleasure, that he would postpone his rest if it let him make sure the community he loved was safe. When he called me on October 17th to tell me he had tested positive for COVID, he tried to keep the focus off himself and on his concern for who would do the work of making sure the county had what it needed to stay safe while he was out.
I last spoke to him on the 20th. Predictably, he spent perhaps 2 minutes talking about his own condition and 10 minutes talking about how the virus had affected others and the county.
“You know,” he said, “I always joked that I would rest when I was dead. As much sleep as I’m getting right now because of this virus, I have to tell you, I am tired of resting. I want to get back to work!”.
He died around lunchtime on the 22nd.
My father was not perfect, and as a child I often resented the ways that his love for and sense of responsibility to this community took him away from me. The Thanksgiving he missed because of a shooting, the Christmas he missed because of the house fire, the evenings spent away from us to be in the company of others where he could take yet another class instead of spending time with me, the endless fundraisers for the little fire department that was all that protected my community.
But as I told a friend after his death, the hardest part of it is that there is no one to be mad at in this. I wish there was. It would make it all easier. But he died protecting the community that had raised and protected him when he was the child of a middle-aged single mom, who had made sure they had enough when that was far from certain, who had given him the means to earn a living, to raise a family, had given his life meaning and purpose, and that taught him along the way that your community contains all the things you need to have a good life. It is the only way his story could possibly end that would have made sense, given who he was and how he lived.
He was not a demonstratively emotional man, but he loved this town, this county, and the people who lived there. He would not want to be called a hero – he would maintain he was just doing his job. But one of the roles community plays is to tell us the things we cannot know or admit about ourselves, and those of us who knew and loved him know the truth.
Hugh L. Hollowell, Jr.