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Lawyer, Patriot, Father
Gulfport’s Boyce Holleman Remembered

– Special to GulfCoastNews.com
Photos Provided by Tim and Mike Holleman    Filed 11/26/03

Even in death, Jesse Boyce Holleman had a few more stories to share. He was an inspired man who led and inspirational life.

On Nov. 21, the Gulf Coast attorney passed into his lasting role as a Mississippi legend. Anyone who knew him had to love him for his wit, his compassion, his intelligence and above all, his sheer delight at being alive.

"Man, did he love life," County Court Judge Gaston Hewes eulogized before family and friends who filled the pews of First Baptist Church in Gulfport on Tuesday for a funeral that was a fitting celebration of the man's life. "Can any of us say that he didn't squeeze several lifetimes into 79 years?"

Holleman was, first and foremost, a husband to Annie Louise and father to four sons, two daughters, three stepdaughters, one stepson, 16 grandchildren, a brother and two sisters. His parents, William Clifford and Ruth Taylor Holleman, died before him, along a brother and a stepson.

He was such a strong presence and role model that three of his sons, Tim, Mike and Dean, followed him into the practice of law at their firm, Boyce Holleman P.A. in Gulfport.

Holleman was the winner of a Purple Heart, a district attorney and state representative, an actor in theater and movies, one of the best bridge players in the country, a nationally recognized debater and an extraordinarily gifted storyteller in a region where this gift is considered an art.

When asked to reflect on his life, as he often was, Holleman said that he wanted to be remembered, first and foremost, as a lawyer. He brought all his gifts into the courtroom, a flair for drama that galvanized many a jury.

When he stood before a judge and jury, his eyebrows and mustache bristled and his raspy Southern drawl became all the more pronounced. He knew how to pause and lift a brow for effect, how to inject humor into the most dire of set of circumstances.

Many an attorney has tried to imitate Holleman's style, for he was generous in sharing his gifts with young lawyers, but he stood on a plane all his own.

Politics was one of Holleman's early, and enduring, loves. His father, William Clifford Holleman, introduced his son to the politicians who stumped through Stone County. Theodore G. Bilbo, a governor of the state, captured young Holleman's imagination with his colorful speeches.

Holleman was smart enough to see that Bilbo's racist platform was as much a strategy of the times as it was a personal belief. Bilbo told young Holleman that, to succeed in politics, you must first win election. Holleman recalled in a fascinating oral history for the University of Southern Mississippi that to win was Bilbo's single-minded pursuit.

Holleman's memory was infallible. He could recount verbatim conversations with several generations of the state's governors or entertain the crowd that invariably gathered around him with stories about trips to Las Vegas with members of the county board of supervisors, whom he advised for 18 years after leaving his district attorney's post.

During his eulogy, Gaston Hewes beautifully illustrated Holleman's gift for recollection. Hewes, whose family has been friends with the Hollemans for 50 years, learned the practice of law from the elder attorney and recalled a murder trial they worked on together.

Five years after the trial, Hewes said, Holleman recited the names of all 12 jurors and recalled where each had sat in the box. Incredulous, Hewes looked up the records the next day and found that his mentor was right.

Holleman's recollections are a gift that he has left behind, in his oral history, countless newspaper articles and videos. Of course, his outstanding achievements were recognized by the Mississippi State Bar Association, which he served as president in 1969 and 1970. He was one of five attorneys the Bar selected in 1995 for an autobiographical video of his legal career.

One of the stories he left us was about being shot down as a Naval aviator during World War II. The experience helped to define Holleman's character and left lasting scars. He was the sole survivor of that bombing run over Saipan and spent 14 months recovering from his injuries. He was always modest about this heroic feat, and brought it up only when asked.

After he returned from the war, Holleman attended the University of Mississippi School of Law, for which he maintained a fond attachment all his life. In his memory, his family has requested that donations be sent to the University of Mississippi Foundation's debate scholarship fund.

While still in his early 20s, Holleman was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, where he served until 1953, resigning to become district attorney for the Gulf Coast. Holleman had absorbed much through his early love of politics. His experience, combined with legal and oratorical gifts, helped him win re-election five times.

As Gaston Hewes told the audience Tuesday, "My dad used to say, if you do not want to vote for Boyce, do not go hear him speak."

As district attorney, Holleman survived an assassination attempt by the Dixie Mafia. He served in the office for 19 years. He was very proud that he kept the office at one point by fighting to overturn a crooked election. He took this battle all the way to the state Supreme Court, which wisely concluded dead men can't vote. One would really has to hear him tell the story to get the full effect.

Holleman established his legal practice in 1950 in Wiggins and moved his family to Gulfport in 1967. He lived to see a boulevard named after him. And to successfully defend hundreds of grateful clients, including former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey.

Blessey, one of the many dignitaries to attend Holleman's funeral, survived a bitter and protracted legal battle with the federal government. At the end, he presented Holleman with a pair of mule blinders mounted on a plaque, thanking him for taking the blinders off the mule, so to speak.

Holleman's family was among those who worshipped at the first service held February 4, 1968, at First Baptist Church in downtown Gulfport. The Rev. Chuck Register recalled Holleman's story of being saved by Jesus, in the Baptist tradition, at the age of seven.

Holleman's nephew, John S. Rantal, sang, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," bringing himself and many in the audience to tears at the end. Fellow thespian David Delk offered an a cappella rendition of "How Great Thou Art."

This would not have been a fitting memorial tribute without Holleman's stories, and the laughter they brought. His son Mike lovingly compiled a video tribute to his father, the lawyer, actor and storyteller.

Holleman told about the woman who lost her case in county Justice Court, then appealed all the way to the Circuit Court. The quotes are not exact, but Holleman recounted what happened as he cross-examined the woman before the Circuit Court Judge and Jury.

After hearing the lady testify at the second trial, Holleman said he rose in amazement to cross-examine her:

"Do you remember when we tried this case down in Justice Court three months ago?"

"Yes, I remember that."

"And do you remember testifying down there?"

"Yes, I remember that."

"And didn't you testify to just the opposite of what you just told this court and jury?"

"Why certainly, Mr. Holleman. I lost down there, I hope you don't think I'm going to tell the same story."

Again, you had to hear him tell it to get the full effect.

Gaston Hewes related a story that illustrated Holleman's mischievous side. He could be a rascal, but always with a twinkle in his eye.

He found the time to take up acting, developing a real gift for it. He had a Screen Actor's Guild Card and helped to establish Center Stage Theater. His one-man portrayals of Clarence Darrow and Mark Twain traveled the country. His last film appearance was a starring role in the film adaptation of Eudora Welty's "The Ponder Heart."

He shared with Hewes a secret to his acting success: "When you forget your lines, look at the other guy so the audience will think it was him!"

There was, and will be, only one Boyce Holleman. A recollection of his life would not be fitting without mention of his generosity. He was generous with his money and his time. He was willing to help absolutely anyone and everyone.

Gaston Hewes recalled carrying a card in his wallet. "In an emergency," it said, "call Boyce Holleman," then listed the phone number.

Shortly before his death, Holleman gave $40 to a woman who showed up on his doorstep desperate for car tires. "I have it," he said, "why not give it to her?" He was a very busy man, personally and professionally, but he was always willing to share his time, a gift indeed.

He especially liked to meet young people in the course of his work, attorneys, journalists and others. It didn't matter who they were. He would sit and regale them with his many war stories, from politics to crime. And he'd offer them the benefit of his wisdom.

For 18 years, he advised the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. Some called him the sixth supervisor because of his intelligence and sound advice to the board. When many families sued over the horrendous deaths of their loved ones in the Biloxi jail fire, Holleman stuck for years with the tedious legal work, no doubt saving Harrison County from bankruptcy.

He was so many things to so many people.

As he grew older, Holleman took more time to enjoy bridge and his other extracurricular activities. But he remained active in his law practice, even after he developed heart problems.

He liked to go to his rehabilitation sessions and give the therapists a hard time. He found fun even in that. Then he was diagnosed with cancer. He had undergone surgery at M.D. Anderson hospital in Texas. The surgery wentwell. He spent his last night with his family, reminiscing, telling stories. And, of course, there was laughter. He was even up and walking around.

In the end, his heart gave out. It was full, as our hearts fill with his memory. He will never die because he lived so magnificently.

His flag-draped coffin sat at the front of the large chapel, where people from all walks of life filled the pews.

Vocalist Keith Ballard offered a fitting solo tribute "The anchor holds, though the ship is battered, the anchor holds, though the sails are torn. . . The anchor holds in spite of the storm."

At the end of the service, Holleman's wife, Annie, was led up the aisle, followed by the family he loved so dearly, his sons, daughters and grandchildren and, last, by the congregation whose lives he had touched.

His son Mike related this story Wednesday:

"When I saw him in the ICU just hours after he had survived that dangerous six-hour surgery, the first thing he said to me, with a weak voice, but clear mind, was: 

'Mike, God has been so good to me, and I don't think I have done all I should for Him.'

"I said, 'Dad His greatest command was to love others, and in that area you have excelled.  You have loved others, rich or poor.  Your empathy is your greatest gift.'

"He thought for a moment, and then related a story I had never heard. He said: 'When I almost died from the heart complications several years ago, (sons) Dean and Tim were helping me walk down the hallway of the hospital. Two black men were painting the hall, and as they approached, the two men stood back against the wall, and with reverence, saluted me as we passed.'

"He then said to me, 'To have been loved by such men has been the greatest treasure of my life.'

"This was my last conversation with him.  Dad would much prefer talking to the yardman, as he would a head of state.  When he talked to anyone, he made them feel like they were important to him.  It was easy, because they truly were."

 In memory of Boyce Holleman, his family asks that donations be sent to the Debate Scholarship Fund, University of Southern Mississippi Foundation, P.O. Box 249, University, MS., 38677.