In Minneota, an empty chair for Bill Holm

Bill Holm often sat for Sunday services in this chair in the choir loft at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Minneota, reading a newspaper at times. At his funeral service a newspaper was placed on the chair.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Family and friends, former students and fellow writers turned out for the services at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Minneota.

Hundreds of people packed the small, wood-framed building on the east side of town. While the media were not allowed to record in church, reporters were invited to attend and talk with people before and after the service.

Bill Holm
Poet and essayist Bill Holm was named the 2008 McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist. He died in February at the age of 65.
Image courtesy McKnight Foundation, (Photographer: Einar Falur)

The church was built more than 100 years ago by Icelandic immigrants, which included Bill Holm's ancestors. In all he wrote 16 books, including "The Music of Failure" and "The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth."

On the day of his funeral in Minneota, the writer became the subject, as Holm the storyteller became the central character in tales told by others about him.

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"Everyone has a story, everyone," said Pastor Steve Rasmussen.

Rasmussen was one of two ministers presiding over the funeral service. In the packed church, one chair was deliberately left empty. Placed on it was a newspaper containing Holm's photo.

The seat was where Bill Holm often sat for Sunday worship; an old wood straight-back chair in the choir loft. Holm liked to read a newspaper during the church service, but Pastor Rasmussen said he was still listening.

Leaving church
Several hundred people file out of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Minneota at the conclusion of Sunday's funeral service for Bill Holm.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"During the sermon, every once in a while he'd drop the newspaper just a few inches and you'd see his eyes peeking over the top," Rasmussen said. "And you could tell whether what you had just said was either trite or astute. And you could tell by his eyebrows."

In his sermon at the funeral service, Rasmussen said Holm "kept us preachers honest."

Holm died Feb. 25, at the age of 65. He played the piano and harpsichord and loved all kinds of music. That love was well represented at the funeral service, with works by Bach, Handel and Haydn among others sung and played.

Holm the writer was also there.

One group of people at the Holm funeral walked from the church to the American Legion hall, accompanied by blues tunes on a boombox.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The eulogy was filled with his words, including his observation that "it's hard business being a human."

Many people said Holm was good at softening those hard edges just a little. He donated his time to help raise money for projects he believed in.

Minneota Mayor Paul Larson said Holm was always ready with a word of encouragement. Larson said he wrote a poem once, probably the first one he ever put down on paper.

"And somehow it got in Bill's hands, and he actually said, 'You know Paul, it's pretty good.' Boy, that was a compliment," Larson said. "To hear Bill say that really made me feel good, and it makes me want to put down more."

Holm the free spirit was also honored. Writer and humorist Howard Mohr said he remembered spending time with Holm in Iceland. Holm spent a lot of time in Iceland absorbing its history and culture. The men took sightseeing tours around the rugged island.

Memorial program
One of two memorials handed out at the Holm funeral in Minneota.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"He'd start driving, with his foot completely in the carburetor. He would gesture with one hand and smoke with the other," Mohr said. "And that was even with precipices on my side. Our snack was a dried fish that he had on the defroster. Can you imagine what it smelled like in there?"

After the funeral service, about 30 people walked from the church through the streets of Minneota, keeping time with blues music from a boombox.

It was a New Orleans-type of sendoff for Bill Holm.

"He was an eye-opener, he was a big force of nature," said Scott Beyers, one of the marchers. "He was a friend. He always picked everybody up."

With Holm gone, Beyers and the others gathered in Minneota will need to pick each other up from now on.

But, they're not alone. They have the words and music of Bill Holm to guide them.