Cover photo for Gary Holthaus's Obituary
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1932 Gary 2022

Gary Holthaus

August 22, 1932 — July 5, 2022

Red Wing

The world lost an exceptional man when Gary Holthaus passed away on July 5 at his home in Red Wing, Minnesota. A self-proclaimed humanist, Gary embraced that challenge throughout his lifework as a writer, minister, father, administrator of public humanities programs, teacher, social justice activist, outdoorsman, and engaged public citizen. His territory criss-crossed half the continent, stretching from Alaska to Minnesota and Texas and through the American West. His capacity for endless cups of coffee allowed him to meet a spectrum of people—from academics to farmers, corporate executives to street people—and he sought wisdom from them all. Just after his retirement at 85 at the end of 2017, he received the Alaska Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities.

Gary grew up in Iowa’s farm country and earned a Bachelor’s degree at local Cornell College. He went on receive Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Sacred Theology at Boston University and became an ordained Methodist minister. In 1958 an assignment to three small churches in Montana took him west where the people he met and the reach of wild landscape captured him. His move to Alaska in 1964 fostered his extensive involvement with people and the land, ranging from Alaska Native cultures, languages, and education to land claims issues to civic engagement and community sustainability. He was the Founding Director of the Alaska Humanities Forum and his twenty-year tenure shaped varied cultural frameworks for public projects in remote villages and larger communities all over the state.

On leaving Alaska in 1991, Gary went on to serve as director and consultant with numerous humanities programs, including the Center of the American West in Colorado; the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Minnesota; and the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society in North Dakota.

Invitations to speak and teach at conferences and symposia followed Gary wherever he went. He also volunteered on many Boards, ranging from the Anchorage Child Abuse Board to the Alaska Conservation Foundation and University of Alaska Press. He was a Witness for Peace delegate to Nicaragua in 1986 and a four-time invited delegate to the Al-Mirbed Poetry Conference in Iraq.

Gary’s voracious reading habit—of ancient European and Oriental texts through to contemporary poetry, novels, and essays—made him a firm believer in the power of words to better us as people. “We are people of the word,” he wrote, “—word as creative act and word as bond. Stories become the means of exploring our bonds, the agreements we make with ourselves, with one another, and with the earth.” Throughout his working life he crafted words into poems, stories, and essays. He authored multiple books of poetry, including Unexpected Manna and Circling Back and several essay collections including Wide Skies and Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us About Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality, where he observed, “There has never been a long-term, sustainable culture that did not keep an eye on reciprocity, balance, and harmony…”

However, words on the page were not always enough. Gary also loved music and collaborated with his wife and musician/composer Lauren Pelon to create and perform compositions incorporating her music and his words, deepening the meaning and resonance of both for widespread audiences.

The position of Minister at the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship landed Gary back in Alaska in 2012 for the last five years of his professional career. A fitting close, the job highlighted so many aspects of the exceptional man Gary was: kind, generous, authentic, funny, comforting, honest, inspiring, humble, strong, a firm supporter of the human enterprise, and a believer in the central goodness of human beings. The reverberations of his life reach farther than he ever would have imagined.

Gary is survived by his wife Lauren Pelon of Red Wing; his brother Jack Holthaus (Brenda) of Springfield, Oregon; his son Kevin Holthaus (Lydia Ossorgin) and his daughter Stephanie Holthaus (Ken Acton), all of Anchorage. The family suggests contributions in Gary’s memory may be made to Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International, Food and Water Watch, or Mayo Clinic Hospice in Red Wing, Minnesota.

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