Burial “Bo” Holmes ’69 tribute speech, by former West Liberty Football Coach Al Blatnik, delivered in 1992 and posted here to commemorate a time of great social change on our campus and across the nation.
Traveling south in West Virginia to play football soon after racial integration was a traumatic event to say the least. I was football coach for West Liberty College. A game with Concord College was the cruelest show of racism I had ever seen. The Concord linemen, and particularly one of them, would not even attempt to block Bo Holmes, our only black player, but would swing from their stance with their fists and hit him in the face. The officials, hired locally in those days, pretended to see nothing. Taunts of the “N” word rang from the field to the bench and beyond. None of my protests to the officials was honored. It was one of the most disgusting athletic events I had ever experienced. When Bo came to the sidelines, his face swollen and bleeding, I told him I was going to take him out of the game; but he fiercely and emphatically refused to let me do that.
I have to tell you that one year later we were playing Concord at the Wheeling Stadium, and the lineman that had made mincemeat of Bo’s face at Concord was still playing. The game had barely gotten underway, when suddenly I saw a referee leading Bo off the field – disqualified and out of the game. Looking further, I saw a Concord lineman lying prostrate on the field. He did not play any more either! Bo, without talking about it, had waited a year for this day. I admonished him for his behavior and told him he could cost us the game by not being able to play; but he just smiled slightly – an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-like smile. It was the only time he ever displayed any behavior of that sort.
That same year, we played Salem in Clarksburg with similar, but milder harassment. We had made reservations for 45 of us to eat at a restaurant in Clarksburg. The restaurant owners were unaware that one among us was black. When we entered, the owner of the restaurant came up to inform me that it was against their policy to serve negroes. I said that if that were the case, we would have to go elsewhere to eat. The owner replied that the 45 meals were already prepared, and that Bo could eat in the kitchen. I said, “No, Bo will eat with us in the main dining room, or we are leaving.” A quick meeting of the restaurateurs ensued, and rather than waste the 45 meals, the restaurant was integrated!
Back then, the team traveled in private cars to away games. On the way home, Bo was riding with me, and he taught me a very humbling lesson that night. I was trying to take away the sting of the event, and I told him how being a “hunky” Catholic named Blatnik played against me in my younger days. Bo floored me by saying, “Yes, coach, you may be Catholic and you may be a ‘hunky’, but you are white.” What could I say?
Bo was a good student, and he worked hard. Like many other students of that day, he took English from Dr. Raymond Hughes, a veritable “hell on wheels.” Bo flunked English three times! But he showed no rancor toward Dr. Hughes. As a matter of fact, he had great respect for Dr. Hughes as a teacher.
Financially, Bo could no longer stay in college, so he decided to join the Air Force, which offered him an opportunity to continue his education and get veteran financial aid. During his time in the Air Force, Bo enrolled and was accepted into a college in Texas, where he finally became the student that he knew he could be. His strong desire to master the English language was beginning to come true. This was his proudest accomplishment of his college experience. Bo would write me letters that drove me to the dictionary to find out what the hell he was talking about, as he showed off his newly found linguistics ability. Later, he returned to West Liberty College to complete his degree and was an outstanding student as well as an athletic star.
Bo met a woman named Lonnie, who was one of the brightest math teachers in the Ohio County School System. Being the wise man he is, Bo asked Lonnie to become his bride, and they were married. I was his best man.
Bo went on to get his Master’s degree and moved on to school administration in Youngstown. Meanwhile, in Wheeling, the influence of the civil rights movement was making itself felt. Wheeling High School was a racial tinder box about to explode, and the administrators there, like most of us at that time, were unable to deal effectively with the problem.
What was needed at Wheeling High School was a black role model – a principal who could command the respect of blacks and whites alike – someone tough, yet with a good educational philosophy. You guessed it. Bo Holmes was asked to come to Wheeling, which he did, and the situation at Wheeling High School was tempered.
When the criteria for being nominated to the West Liberty State College Athletic Hall of Fame was first devised, the person under consideration was to exhibit at least two important characteristics or achievements: one, he or she was to excel at athletics at West Liberty; and two, he or she was to continue to excel in athletics or coaching after graduation – or make a significant contribution to mankind, to society.
I have had the pleasure to introduce a number of outstanding athletes who were inducted into the West Liberty State College Athletic Hall of Fame. And they all deserved the honor. But none deserved the honor more than Burial “Bo” Holmes, the man I was proud to introduce at the 1992 Induction Ceremony. (Bo never did tell me what the name, Burial, means or where it originated.)
During my introduction, I did not dwell on Bo’s athletic accomplishments. He was a second team all-American in football. (And West Liberty has not had too many of those!) He was – no, is – one of the strongest men I have ever known. Six feet four inches, 235 pounds with a 32-inch waist, and he still looks like those measurements after all these years. Bo has the biggest hands I have ever seen! He used to sort out offensive players until he found the one with the ball. He was very coachable, and never knew the meaning of the word, “complain.” Bo was an absolute joy to be around!
As the years go by, it is not the athletic feats that come to mind when I think of Bo Holmes. No, it is his life struggle and achievement at West Liberty and beyond that becomes paramount. It is his astounding and astonishing story of personal achievement and the honorable character of this man that comes to mind.
Bo Holmes was the first black to play varsity sports at West Liberty. (There was one black who participated in a minimal track program before integration. President Elbin used to be proud of the fact that he had allowed this light-skinned black to attend West Liberty before it was actually legal.) Bo is the one who made history at West Liberty! Make no mistake about it – Bo Holmes was the first to undertake the almost dehumanizing task of integrating the West Virginia Conference, at least as far as West Liberty State College was concerned.
Bo and I were very close, and there was a real bond of understanding between us. If something was troubling him during a game or at times off the football field, I would just put my hand on his shoulder and he immediately calmed down.
I have known Bo Holmes for a long time now. When I first saw him, he was playing football and basketball for Warren Consolidated High School located in Tiltonsville, Ohio. I was then coaching at Bridgeport and St. Clairsville high schools.
I didn’t get to know Bo well until he came on West Liberty’s campus to go to school and to play football. I wish I could say that we had given him a scholarship, but we didn’t have scholarships back then. The coaches today can boast of 20 or so tuition waivers; but we had none. The players came to play for nothing. And let me tell you, there was something refreshing about that! Back then, we did have a few work-study programs and some loans, but believe me, the students that got into these programs had to work really hard!
Bo had no money, and he could not afford to stay in the regular dorm. Only the kids with money stayed there, so most of the players and many other students lived uptown where you could rent a room cheaply. One major problem, though, in those days, was that nobody uptown would rent to a black. I went to President Elbin with the problem, and much to his credit, he allowed us to use the old army barracks for Bo’s room. And he was able to cook there, too, when he had the money to buy food. Often, Bo had little to eat, subsisting at times on the apples from the orchard trees that lined the way to the practice field.
The use of the old army barracks as a dorm gave the opportunity for some other blacks to come to West Liberty, too, including the great Bobby Douglas, the USA Olympic wrestling coach, and Kenny Holmes, Bo’s brother, who was an outstanding football and basketball player at West Liberty.
Bo was in charge of this dorm. In today’s student services, he wouldn’t have lasted; for if someone didn’t live up to the rules of the barracks/dorm, Bo was liable to enforce them! The six foot, four-inch giant strode the halls of the revered institution with authority. Bo Holmes’ philosophy was that whether you were black or white, he treated you equally. He preached to the blacks that to succeed you must be educated, you must discipline yourself, and you must work hard. He was an Uncle Tom to the militant blacks, because he refused to take the position that society owed anybody anything.
When Bo became principal at Wheeling High School, he continued to lead with the same conviction. When he disciplined white boys, he was referred to as a “nigger” by many white parents, who, I suppose, would have tolerated this same discipline from a white principal.
I never thought Bo Holmes got the credit he deserved for his service to the Ohio County School System; but you would never hear him say that! He remains to this day a credit to the system, to his wife and son, to West Liberty State College, and most of all, to mankind. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Burial Holmes!!