A storyteller's tragic ending
His son's slaying, friends say, took the life out of Sam Holman
Not long after they polished off a seafood platter together at the kitchen table of their Roxbury townhouse, something, maybe a father's intuition, made Sam Holman call out to his 25-year-old son.
''Reggie," Sam Holman told his youngest, eyeing him sternly, ''I don't want you running around out there."
Standing at the door, pulling on his coat, Reggie Holman rolled his eyes, his mother and siblings recall.
''Pop," he said, sighing, ''I'm just going up the street."
Sam Holman went upstairs to watch a basketball game on his bedroom television set and dozed off. A few hours later, he was shaken awake.
Reggie had gone to a party, and was walking back home around midnight when someone shot him.
He was dead.
Three weeks later, so was Sam Holman.
The autopsy said Sam Holman, a cook at Harvard University for 27 years, died of a heart attack. But everyone who knew him and loved him, and there were many, say it was the grief, guilt, and overwhelming sadness at the loss of his son that squeezed the life out of Sam Holman, as surely as if he had been crushed by a boulder.
His death, like his son's, would ordinarily go almost unremarked upon in a city where murder is on the rise, and fear, in some places, is a neighbor. But Sam was a man who collected stories the way some collect stamps, and this is his last.
Reggie Holman foresaw his murder. He asked his mother if the family could move, saying the word on the street was that he was a snitch, prepared to implicate others in exchange for leniency in a drug case. Reggie insisted it wasn't true, but he knew there were some boys out there who believed it.
But if the risks to Reggie seemed a little unreal to his parents until it was too late, the change in Sam was all too real in the weeks after the killing. The joyful, bear-hugging Sam, the Sam who would dance at the drop of a hat, disappeared under an uncharacteristically furrowed brow. His family said they watched helplessly as he withered under the burden of feeling he somehow hadn't done enough to protect his son.
''Whoever killed my Reggie," Emma Holman said, ''they killed my Sam, too."
Sam Holman was born in 1950 and raised in Holly Hill, S.C., a rural hamlet of 1,281 people and 18 churches. Sam was nicknamed ''Cookie" because that's what his mother Annie Mae craved when she was pregnant with him. One of his seven siblings was nicknamed ''Apple" for the same reason.
Sam lived on the Unity side of town, so named for a church popular with black folks there. Emma, his wife of 31 years, grew up on the other side, a place called Tubtown.
''Holly Hill was out in the country," Emma explained. ''The white folks, they had farms. We worked for them."
As soon as Sam reached his teens, he left school to work the cotton fields. It was what most black kids did back then, Emma recalled. In the Deep South, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't change much for kids like Sam Holman, who came of age when Jim Crow still wielded more power than Lyndon Johnson. There was an expectation, and Sam followed it, out to the fields.
Still, Sam rebelled, as best he could. His daughter, Gwendolyn, recalled her father saying he used to get up early and sneak off to school, then leave class early. ''He'd beat it back home, and get out to the fields, before his dad realized he was at school," Gwendolyn said.
In 1976, with two kids and few job prospects, Sam and Emma decided to try their luck up North. Sam's brother, Nathaniel, a minister, suggested Boston.
''We had some cousins here, so we said, why not?" Emma said.
Gwendolyn was just an infant. She cried the whole 934 miles.
Sam heard they were hiring cooks at Harvard University. Ed Childs got hired around the same time as Sam Holman. They couldn't be more unlike: a black guy from the rural South, and a white kid from the projects in Somerville. But they became fast friends.
Childs remembers Sam Holman stood out, and not just because he was 6 feet 4 inches tall.
''Sam had this aura about him, this friendliness, this concern about you. Everybody says, 'Hey, how are you?' But Sam really meant it. He'd tell you a story about his life, then he'd expect one back."
Childs remembers the day when the famous chef, Julia Child, visited Adams House, the Harvard residence hall where Sam Holman cooked the last 15 years of his life. Sam and the French Chef got talking, about cooking, about his life. Child seemed charmed, but when she turned to leave, Sam stopped her. It was her turn, he explained, to tell a story.
Sam Holman and Ed Childs got involved in Local 26, the hotel workers' union that represents many of the blue-collar staff at Harvard. Sam wasn't as strident as some, but he was hardly a pushover. Childs remembers once, about 25 years ago, when a woman claimed someone had tampered with her handbag. Without a word of explanation, the dining hall manager stormed into the kitchen and ordered all of the black workers to line up.
Realizing what was happening, Sam stepped from the line, took the manager's hand and shook it. It seemed like the oddest thing, Childs recalled. Sam was smiling, but his body language said something else.
''You," Holman told the manager through his gritted smile, ''will never do this again."
On most work days, Holman walked a block from his Orchard Gardens home and boarded the No. 1 bus at Dudley Square Station for the 40-minute ride down Mass Ave. to Harvard Square. It was just a 4-mile trip, but a world away.
In 1983, the Holmans moved into the Orchard Park housing project, and the wail of sirens was never far from their door. But just as inexplicably as Sam, Emma, and their four children avoided the violence for so long, it seemed to home in on them during the last year of his life. Shawn Adams, the 15-year-old son of Emma's cousin, was stabbed to death at the Dudley Square Station last Valentine's Day, not long after Sam got off the bus from work. Sam was walking to a nearby store when he saw Shawn race past him.
''Sam didn't know what was going on," Emma recalls. ''He thought Shawn and those kids were playing."
Shawn was actually running for his life. Police say he was an innocent victim, a good kid mistaken for a gang member.
A few years ago, Sam and his family were among those who got first crack at one of the 115 candy-colored townhouses called Orchard Gardens, which replaced the square, squat brick buildings of the Orchard Park housing development.
Commuting between the two worlds at the opposite ends of the No. 1 bus sometimes left Sam Holman pensive.
''After work sometimes," Ed Childs said, ''we'd grab a beer and Sam would talk. . . . Why was there so much more opportunity one place than the other? Why was there so much more heartbreak in one place than the other?"
But Sam never blamed the Harvard students for their good fortune. He loved them, and they loved him back. He dispensed bear hugs as often as slabs of roast beef. He cut the meat thicker than the bean counters would like, telling the students they had to eat well if they were going to study well. He cut one student's grilled cheese into four pieces, just like the kid's mom did. He was forever extolling the virtues of collard greens.
''This was a guy who didn't get a chance to get a real education," said Lionel Louis-Jean, who worked with him for 19 years. ''He was happy for anyone who could."
Fearing the worst
Sam worried about all four of his kids, but he worried about Reggie the most, his friends and family say.
Reggie Holman was 25, and nearly as big as his dad, but he was still, and always would be, the baby of the family.
''Of all of us, he was most like my dad," his sister, Gwendolyn said. ''A comedian, a good dancer."
But while Sam was focused and disciplined, Reggie was restless, some would say aimless. He dropped out of Boston High and drifted from job to job. When he was broke, he sometimes sold small amounts of cocaine, according to police.
''My baby brother, he did his hustle on the side, but he wasn't a bad kid," Gwendolyn said.
A Boston police detective familiar with Reggie Holman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed with that assessment.
''Reggie knew some players," said the detective, using police parlance for street criminals, ''but he wasn't really one of them. He wasn't a bad kid, but you know, even good kids . . ."
Even good kids get in jams sometimes, and Reggie got himself in one last year. Police say that last February, Reggie sold a small amount of cocaine to an undercover officer in Orchard Gardens. In June, after a lengthy investigation, police swept through the development at dawn, arresting Reggie and 14 other men. It was Reggie's second drug offense, a prosecutor said in court.
After his arrest, Reggie told his mother he feared for his life, that people on the street suspected he was a snitch because he'd gotten out on bail while his codefendants remained in jail awaiting trial.
''It didn't matter if it was true, and it wasn't true," said Emma Holman. ''It was out there."
David Procopio, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, confirmed that Reggie wasn't a snitch. Procopio said Reggie wasn't the only one of the 25 arrested to make bail; he was scheduled for trial sometime this year.
Gwendolyn remembers her brother nervously locking the doors every time he came home, but the family also noticed changes for the better. Suddenly, he seemed serious about improving himself. He got a job at an auto yard across the street from his house. He bought a used Lincoln Town Car and started fixing it. He told his family he was going to go back to school.
Sam picked up on the change, too. An accomplished tinkerer, Sam began helping Reggie fix the Lincoln. ''That boy was going to work six days a week," his mother said of Reggie. ''He hardly ever left the house, except to go to work."
But he left the night of Dec. 4, a Saturday, to go to a party on Shawmut Avenue. Sam Jr. was there, as were some cousins. Around midnight, Reggie got a call on his cellphone, and stepped outside so he could hear. Sam Jr. also got a call and did the same. Some time later, a young woman came by. She and Reggie began talking about mutual friends, and then strolled away, with Reggie hollering back to his big brother, ''Yo, bro! C'mon!"
Sam Jr. held up his hand, motioning that he'd catch up with them.
''They hit the corner, made a left, and turned up Eustis Street," Sam Jr. recalled. A few minutes passed.
''I heard four shots jump up," Sam Jr. said. ''I couldn't tell the direction, but it sounded close."
He followed the path his brother had, wondering but not especially worried.
''You hear shots around here all the time," he said. ''I didn't think it was Reggie."
He was somewhat relieved when he walked back to their home and found no sign of his brother. He figured Reggie had gone to another party. He jumped into his car and drove to a convenience store. When he got back, some kid was at the front door, saying, ''Your brother got shot."
Sam Jr. raced to the scene. Reggie was already gone, in the ambulance. It turns out Sam Jr. had driven past Reggie, but couldn't see him in the darkness. By the time they found him, about a half-hour after he was shot, Reggie's mustache was frozen. By the time they rushed him to Brigham and Women's Hospital, he was dead.
''The newspapers said he was shot in the stomach, but that ain't right," Sam Jr. said.
Reggie Holman's death certificate lists the cause of death as a gunshot wound to the back.
Sitting at the kitchen table, in the immediate, sleep-deprived aftermath, Sam Holman Sr. seemed lost. Reggie was more than just his youngest child.
''Who'm I gonna play cards with now? I don't have a partner now," he asked his wife. ''Who'm I gonna go fishing with?"
Against just about everyone's advice, Sam went back to work at Adams House the day after he buried his son.
Vinny James worked with Sam and knew him for 16 years. He almost didn't recognize the man who walked into the kitchen at Adams House the day after they buried Reggie.
''If you knew Sam, you never saw him without a smile on his face, so to see him like that, you knew something had to be really wrong," James said.
James had gone up front, to get ready for lunch, when someone tugged at his elbow.
''You need to go back there and cheer Sam up," a co-worker whispered.
Vinny James walked back into the kitchen and found Sam Holman slicing cucumbers and crying.
''My boy," he keened. ''They killed my boy, Vinny, and no one can tell me why."
The Holman family says the police have told them virtually nothing about the investigation into Reggie's slaying. Deputy Superintendent Daniel Coleman, chief of the homicide unit, said his detectives try to be compassionate, but also have to be discreet about sharing information before they make an arrest.
''You'd like to give them the answers, but sometimes you can't," Coleman said.
As for who killed Reggie Holman, Coleman said the police don't know.
Judith Palfrey, the house master at Adams House, and Gina Bruno, the student who chairs the house committee at Adams, went to visit Sam after Reggie's murder.
''It was raining," Palfrey said, ''but Sam insisted on going outside to show us. He pointed down the street. 'It was just down there,' he said. So we're standing there, trying to take it all in, and it occurs to me that every time Sam steps outside of his house, he can see where his son was murdered."
On New Year's Eve, they had a little party at the Holman house, an attempt to regain a corner of the holiday. Around midnight, after some coaxing, Sam got up to dance. Everybody smiled and clapped. Sam was dancing again.
But then he clutched his chest. He slumped onto the sofa. And soon Sam Holman was dead.
'He loved his boy'
At noon, on Jan. 8, snow began to fall as the mourners filed into the Grant African Methodist Episcopal church in Roxbury. About 500 people filled the old church, many of them standing in the aisles, leaning against the walls because all the seats were taken.
Ed Childs, Sam's old friend, stood in the last row, wearing a red Local 26 T-shirt emblazoned with the word ''justice" in three languages. Sam's brother, Mitchum, who lives in Rhode Island, was shaking his head.
''Seems like I was just here a few weeks ago," he said.
He was. At Reggie's funeral.
Mitchum, a church deacon, had preached at that service. This day, Mitchum wasn't going to preach as much as he was going to sing. And sing he did, in a rich baritone, an old spiritual, ''Precious Lord." The church was shaking.
When it was all over, Joseph Adams stood on the sidewalk outside, as a Harvard chaplain, Rev. George Salzman, held an umbrella, shielding them both from fluffy snowflakes. Eleven months earlier, Adams had stood in the same church, before the casket of his murdered son. Three weeks earlier, he had stood in the same church, before the casket of Reggie Holman, the murdered cousin of his murdered son. And now, he watched Sam Holman's casket leave the church.
''Sam was beating himself up that he let Reggie go out that night. I said, 'Sam, you can't lock these children up. You can't be blaming yourself.' "'
Joe Adams shook his head.
''Sam was like me," he said. ''He loved his boy."
Joe Adams exhaled long and hard, and a plume of frozen air covered his face, like a shroud.
''Poor Sam," he said. ''Poor Sam."