Aquinas legend was hero on the field and off - Catholic Courier

Aquinas legend was hero on the field and off

ROCHESTER — Folks who pass by Holleder Technology Park, an industrial complex along Mount Read Boulevard near Ridgeway Avenue, may recall that a large stadium also called Holleder once occupied the site. But do they know the significance of that name?

Part of the answer involves Aquinas Institute, a few blocks to the east. That’s where Don Holleder, Class of 1952, was a three-sport athlete before bursting onto the national scene playing football at West Point.

The rest of the story is illustrated at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, located at Highland Park. There, Maj. Donald Holleder’s marker can be found among a long, winding row of 280 memorials — each one honoring a man from the Rochester area killed or missing in Vietnam.

Donald Walter Holleder would have turned 75 years old on Aug. 3, but instead died a hero’s death some 42 years ago. Joseph Aloi, alumni-relations officer at Aquinas, said the school has produced a number of distinguished alumni, but Holleder was a rare breed with his combination of leadership, courage and selflessness.

"Don’s reputation was something we would live and breathe in high school," said Aloi, a 1963 AQ graduate. "He possessed all the qualities we look for in an Aquinas student."

Holleder was born in Buffalo and grew up in Webster. He excelled at Aquinas during the post-World War II era, when the Little Irish played several other renowned football schools around the country. He went on to become an All-American at tight end for the United States Military Academy.

Yet it was at quarterback that the essence of Don Holleder surfaced. In 1955, when he was a senior at West Point, his head coach, Red Blaik, asked him to switch positions because of his exceptional leadership abilities even though Holleder had minimal passing skills. Holleder willingly took on that task, and toward season’s end led Army to an upset of heavily favored Navy. That win helped land Holleder on the Nov. 28 cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

The New York Giants drafted Holleder out of West Point, but he opted for a full-time Army career. Over the next 10 years he rose to the rank of major. In 1967, on his own request, Holleder was sent to Vietnam, where he became operations officer for Second Battalion 28th Infantry of the Army’s First Infantry Division.

On Oct. 17 Holleder’s life ended in the Battle of Ong Thanh, 40 miles from Saigon. He was shot down by Viet Cong sniper fire while attempting to land a helicopter on a rescue mission for fellow soldiers who had been ambushed. Holleder, 33, left behind a wife and four children. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

As signs of Holleder’s enduring reputation, West Point’s indoor sports arena is named in his honor, and the Black Lion Award is given annually by Army’s football team to a player who best exemplifies Holleder’s character. Locally, in 1973 the 20,000-seat Aquinas Stadium — built in 1949 and used primarily in its later years for professional soccer games and major rock concerts — was renamed Holleder Memorial Stadium. The facility was leveled in 1985 and has since been replaced by Holleder Technology Park.

Recent books also affirm Holleder’s lasting influence. The Ong Thanh battle, and Holleder’s role in it, is chronicled in renowned author David Maraniss’ book They Marched into Sunlight, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004. A movie of the same title is due to be released by Universal Pictures in 2010. Two years ago a book exclusively devoted to Holleder, They Called Him ‘Holly’ by Harvey Shapiro, was released. It is now available at the Aquinas library.

Yet Sandy Stevens, the school’s librarian, expressed disappointment that Aquinas students don’t exhibit more interest in Holleder or the Vietnam War in general. She ventured that because the conflict was so controversial, people like Holleder might not always get their just due.

"Very rarely will I have a kid do some research on Vietnam," said Stevens, whose husband, Dick, saw combat in the war as well. However, she added that "I want the kids to see who modern-day heroes are."

Aloi — who served in the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps in the 1960s, though not in Vietnam — is working toward that ideal. He said he’s begun plans with Dennis Sadler, principal of Aquinas, to erect a Holleder display in the main hallway and make him the subject of classroom discussions.

"He was a hero, and we all look up to heroes," Aloi stated. "He was an Aquinas hero."

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