Spring 2001

Memories of Bethel Blessings

By Patty Thomson

He lives in a neatly kept home, with a big picture window that overlooks a sedate street in Austin, Minn. From the outside, there is nothing about this unassuming dwelling that reveals the natural genius and scientific accomplishments of the scholarly man who resides within.

On sunny days, light streams in from that window, which is a good thing, because the shelves bulging with books suggest that the person who lives in this house likes to read. The dainty lace cafe curtains and comfortable living room furniture hint of a woman's touch in a room that, in many ways, functions as a study. A computer and printer are stationed on a desk nestled against the far wall. A painting of a Swedish-style cabin that he had built, years before in Upsala, a little town near Little Falls, Minn., is prominently displayed, along with a high school photograph of Ted, his only child.

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In the dining area, matching corner china cabinets hold the pretty dishes that, once upon a time, Karla, his wife, used for holiday meals and other special occasions. Now he eats alone, and the table is too big. For the past several months, it has been a handy place to stack the reams of paper generated by his latest project: writing his memoirs.

Within those pages, Dr. Ralph T. Holman tells the story of his life. It is a compelling account, the recollections and observations of a fascinating, gifted man who has had—and is still living out—an extraordinary existence.

During his long and brilliant career, Holman taught at Texas A& M and the University of Minnesota, and served for many years as the executive director of the Hormel Institute. He was a founding editor of Progress in Lipid Research and authored more than 400 scientific publications. In 1981, his contributions in the study of polyunsaturated fats and research on the competition between fatty acids in metabolism gained him membership in the National Academy of Science. Holman is emeritus professor of biochemistry of the University of Minnesota and an adjunct professor of biochemistry at Mayo Medical School.

"I am now into the fourth year of writing my family's experiences, and I am beginning to see a pattern...Good things have happened much more often than the laws of chance would allow."

At 83, Holman is vital, alert. Behind the friendly, serene eyes, one senses the intellect that propelled him to academic and professional success ... and a puckish sense of humor. After all, wasn't he the impish Bethel Junior College student who made the girls—and their teacher—scream and scramble onto their desktops when he dosed a mouse with ether and then let it go under the classroom door?

For more than 50 years, Holman had studied the effects of polyunsaturated fats on nutrition, and his research on omega-3 fatty acids has made him an outspoken critic of American eating habits.

In his own kitchen, Holman makes sure that he consumes the right fatty acids ("Now, that's the gospel I preach.") As his wife's health deteriorated, Holman took on more of the meal preparation duties, and fish figures prominently on the menu.

"As long as I was going to be cooking, I decided I would cook for omega-3s," he said. "If you eat fish, you forget that you are hungry because fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. I have fish twice a day." In addition to focusing on fish, Holman doesn't eat meat, consumes generous servings of vegetables, and has only fruit for dessert. "A good kind of diet for a lifetime. I have found that I can be content with very simple things."

Although Holman occasionally drops by the Hormel Institute, the research laboratory that he directed for more than 30 years, and still accepts invitations to lecture before professional societies, the direction of his life has changed significantly. Once hobbies such as photography and gardening demanded his free time, but no more. Much of his day is spent at St. Mark's Lutheran Home, where Karla now resides. The devastating effects of his beloved wife's Alzheimer's disease required care even Holman could not provide.

When not visiting Karla, he is working on the carefully written chapters that provide an extensive account of his life. He had done research on his family and written about the history of two churches.

"I am now into the fourth year of writing my family's experiences," Holman's memoirs state, "and I am beginning to see a pattern . . . . Good things have happened much more often than the laws of chance would allow. . . . Perhaps I was alerted to opportunities when they appeared, because I had been taught since my youth to pray for guidance, and then to look for and to recognize the answer. . . . Investment of time in prayer, plus preparation for a goal, makes one more conscious of answers in the form of opportunities."

In Holman's writings, it is clear that his deeply religious, hard-working Scandinavian family had a profound influence on his life:

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"Although I have researched and written hundreds of pages of history about the Holmen, Nilson, and Friberg families, and the histories of their churches, I still can't figure myself out. Perhaps if I write my memories down, I can partially solve the puzzle. After three-fourths of a century pondering the meaning of life, I have concluded that love within the family is more essential than omega-3 fatty acids are, that I was lucky to be born into a home and into an extended family where love abounded, and where it was the driving force in both clans."

Holman writes of himself during his youth as "a loner," whose hero in the 1930s was Thomas Edison, "and he was a loner, too." When Holman was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences—one of the highest honors for a scientist, he learned that Edison had been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1927. "I had picked the right kind of a role model," he concluded.

After the Depression, the Holman family experienced the economic crunch that was hitting the rest of the country. Holman was grateful for his job as janitor of Minnehaha Church, employment that paid $3 a month in the summer and $5 a month in winter. When his father's wage as a streetcar conductor was cut by 20 percent, the Holman family lost their house, and Holman his dream of attending college. His pastor, the Rev. Franklin Nelson of the Minnehaha Church, asked if he had considered attending Bethel.

"Thank God for my pastor, who took his mission seriously and affected the life of his parishioner, and for that dean who, that day, changed my future from black to bright."

"Of course I had considered Bethel, for my grandfather Nilson had graduated in 1887 from Central Baptist Seminary in Stromsberg, Nebraska, which had been the precursor of Bethel," Holman writes. "I had grown up in a General Conference Baptist church, and all my pastors had come from Bethel. Would I mind if he investigated the possibilities for me at Bethel? I didn't mind."

Soon after, Holman met with Pastor Nelson and the dean of Bethel Junior College, Prof. C.E. Carlson, and they discussed ways to pay for a year of college at Bethel. The dean mentioned a policy that gave free second-semester tuition to first-semester honor students. Dean Carlson agreed to let Holman enroll and pay off his fees during the upcoming year. Holman recalls, "Thank God for my pastor, who took his mission seriously and affected the life of his parishioner, and for that dean who, that day, changed my future from black to bright!"

At Bethel, Holman blossomed. By bike or streetcar, he found ways to commute to the school, eager to gain his education. But at the end of that first year, Holman realized creative financing would again have to be found if he was to stay in school. Administrators did their part to make sure that happened. Since summer employment was almost impossible in 1936, "especially for a 100-pound kid," Dean Carlson offered to let Holman work off the next year's costs in advance, by preparing the buildings for the next school year. What were the wages Holman so gladly accepted? Fifteen cents per hour!

When fall came, he was financially fixed for another semester of classes, and ready to hit the books. Although he enjoyed biology and psychology, Holman couldn't see the value of history. "As a science-oriented kid, I could not imagine how a required course in history would contribute to my scientific career—if I ever found one," Holman recalled.

"The faculty had taught me to depend upon my own efforts, to make something out of nothing, and to be always looking up."

He tried to petition out of the class, which was taught by Carlson, the same professor who had helped him get into school and work off his expenses. Carlson explained that history was needed to obtain an associate of arts degree. If Holman wanted that degree, he should take the course and then discuss attitudes about history later. The budding scientist enrolled, and changed his opinion. Later in life, he would compile histories of both sides of his family, a history of two pioneer churches in Upsala, and even make a "bit of history" in the field of lipid science. In time, history would become his favorite elective reading.

"Thank God there was a Professor CE Carlson in my life," he writes. "I now know that historians and scientists have much in common. We both are dedicated to the gathering and preservation of information for future generations. Prof. Carlson certainly won the contest between us, and he probably knew he would. He had wisdom on his side."

Although he was an excellent student, Holman found time for fun, too. During his first year at Bethel, he bought an Argus camera and took many photos used in the Bethel Junior College annual booklet of 1937, including one of classmate Carl Lundquist, later to become president of Bethel University.

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Another time he found a mouse in a wastebasket that he dosed with ether from a chemistry stock room. Using laboratory tongs, he tied a six-foot string around the sleeping mouse's neck and took it for a walk next to a classroom of girls. Holman dropped the leash and the mouse, of course, escaped through a crack under the classroom door. "It disappeared about the time that loud female screams greeted my ears," he reports, "and wisdom dictated that I beat a hasty retreat."

Exactly 50 years after his grandfather had graduated from seminary, Ralph Holman received his associate of arts diploma. "Bethel had proven to me that obtaining an education was possible for a skinny shorty who had only a curiosity about science to offer," he writes. "The faculty had taught me to depend upon my own efforts, to make something out of nothing, and to be always looking up."

After leaving Bethel, Holman obtained a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and a master's degree in biochemistry from Rutgers University. There he also wooed and won the lovely Karla Calais. Graduate school, a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry, and two prestigious, post-doctoral fellowships in Sweden followed. Holman's stellar career has been filled with outstanding accomplishments, but he has never forgotten those formative years at Bethel.

In 1991, the Holmans established the Ralph T. and Karla C. Holman Endowed Program in Chemistry at Bethel College. "Bethel Junior College has played a major role in my early education, teaching me the foundations of a broad range of knowledge," he noted. "I learned from Bethel's faculty and students that one can be a Christian in any walk of life, and they demonstrated to me the fundamentals of such a life. The foundations of chemistry, which I learned there, have served me well for three score years in the worldwide fraternity of biochemistry, and I am grateful to Bethel for getting me started."

"I learned from Bethel's faculty and students that one can be a Christian in any walk of life, and they demonstrated to me the fundamentals for such a life."

On October 2, 1998, Ralph Holman was honored as Bethel's Distinguished Alumnus of the Year. After presenting a 15-minute summary of his career, he was given a five-minute standing ovation. "Sixty-one years before, I could never have imagined that I would have the attention of a student body of over a thousand," he writes in his memoirs. "After the convocation, we were taken to look down on the excavation for the new chemistry laboratory . . . and we were shown the signs at the door to the Holman Chemistry Laboratory. Life is full of nice surprises!"

Holman's house may be quieter these days than it has been in the past, but the esteemed scientist is far from idle. His fertile mind is actively engaged in the task of writing memoirs that he hopes will inspire coming generations to "wish for a future." As Ralph Holman sees it, his life is a testimony of how time invested in prayer and academic preparation turned the "nebulous hopes" of a young boy from South Minneapolis into the concrete realities of an accomplished biochemist.

  • Patty Thomson is a communications specialist in the Office of Communications and Marketing at Bethel College. She and Richard, her husband, are the parents of three grown children and live in Blaine, Minn
Chem Flask To learn more about Dr. Ralph T. Holman's career and read about other Bethel alums who have made valuable contributions to the field of science access Science through the Decades.