Profile Q&A with Smallwood Holoman

Smallwood Holoman, Jr. of Midland received the Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Award at the Great Lakes Bay Region’s MLK celebration on January 18 at Saginaw Valley State University. 

Holoman was recognized for his efforts during his career at Dow and in the community. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia and later graduated from high school in Chesapeake. He commuted to Norfolk State University where he earned a bachelor’s in chemistry. He joined Dow in 1975 working in research and development. Holoman affectionately called it being a “mad scientist,” doing the type of chemistry where they developed new concepts and products. He retired from Dow in 2008, as a director in the public affairs department.  Smallwood and his wife, Linda, have two sons and one grandson.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Major Award for community service is based on nominees who selflessly perform daily acts of service to make their community — and our world — a better place. The award was created by the Great Lakes Bay Regional MLK Celebration event committee, and the honorees are selected from Bay, Midland and Saginaw counties. 

Q: Smallwood, when we were both much younger, you gave a talk when I attended Leadership Midland. You shared the story about when you first moved to Midland in 1975. The story focused on your hair, back in the days of the Afro.

A: As a young pup coming out of college, you come out pretty confident with what you’ve achieved there. One would think the transition from a predominantly black community to a predominantly white community would go smoothly, but it took me two weeks after I moved here to figure out, I needed to find a barber. I just started calling barbers I found in the phone book. I would ask if they had experience cutting African American hair. The first two said no but one said he was willing to try. I remember calling Andersons around the corner, I think, of Rodd and Indian Streets. They said we’ve got one customer that’s come here, we think his name is Larry Washington, (a now retired Dow executive), so I went to them three or four times before I eventually went to a barber in Saginaw who had primarily cut African American hair. The moral of the story is you’re going to have transitions in life, there’s no need to panic. I was able to find a solution right here in Midland. That story still brings a smile to my face. 

Q: Please tell me about the Dow Promise.

A: The Dow Promise is an initiative (started in 2000, under Holoman’s leadership) to basically integrate Dow people and resources to solve community issues. It was specifically targeted towards African American communities where Dow has a presence in North America and parts of South America…(Dow CEO) Bill Stavropolous thought we could make a difference…It opened my eyes to a lot of things. 

 In this job, I worked with Dow employees to identify what issues were concerns to them in their communities. Predominantly, the issues centered around education. Many communities were finding that young people were not achieving as well as their counterparts in the system. We worked with Dow employees, community leaders, and educational leaders to develop a plan for success. I’m proud to say many of the communities saw great success in young people achieving in their schools. One example, in Saginaw, was a group of Dow volunteers, ranging from secretaries to directors of businesses within Dow, who helped develop and deliver plans to help them improve their reading scores. This one group in Saginaw was recognized by a national organization for their efforts and achievements. We had young people in the program who were more confident in their ability to read and comprehend. I learned that the Dow Promise concept is still being utilized today. 
2023 MLK Jr. Drum Major Award recipients: Angelia Williams, Smallwood Holoman, Jr., & Pastor Phillip Johnson
Q: You shared that your community service includes ten years on the board of education of the Midland Public Schools including some time as president and six years of service on the Delta College Board of Trustees. Also you were on the board of DAPCEP (Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program) and on the Michigan 4-H Foundation. What’s the latest and why all this service?

A: I found somewhere that my niche has been youth development programs. Serving right now on the advisory board of the local Boy Scouts, the Saginaw County Youth Protection Council, and I just got off the board of the Boys and Girls Club in Saginaw. Here in Midland, I’m on the board of Adoption Option, Inc, an agency that matches young people with foster families and helps people complete the adoption process. Why? A-I don’t know (laughs). The other thing I have learned about me is my passion to serve. I got this from two sources. One is when I used to study Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was assassinated when I was 13 years old. He wasn’t on my radar as a young person before then. I didn't grasp what his life was about. There are some people in this world who care more about others than themselves. He was clearly one of those. Then, I learned when I went to college, when I joined a fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. It just happened to be the same fraternity that Dr. King was a member of. The fraternity was founded on the mantra of service. I am convinced those two aspects in my life had an impact on me about service. The Dow Promise helped me to direct that service to young people and the importance of it. I wasn’t thinking that this is what I wanted to do. You find a sense of gratification when you see results. 

Q: Who have been two of your mentors?

A: In terms of directly affecting my life, my chemistry teacher (Alfred Redd) in high school. As a young puppy, I did have a strong interest in science. When I was very young, I was fascinated with astronomy. A funny occasion happened when I was extremely young, age 5, I experienced a harvest moon, looking to the east. My mom and I were coming home, when we saw this huge representation of the moon. I got frightened. It looked like it was going to crash into the earth. In her wisdom, all moms have wisdom, she purchased me a telescope. I’d find myself peering through the telescope hoping to find something new. At my 50th high school class reunion last year, I made Mr. Redd aware of his impact on my life. Without my interest in chemistry, I wouldn’t have been recruited by Dow and I wouldn’t have ended up in Midland.

Second is Dr. Arthur Wall, the Dean of the Chemistry Department (at Norfolk State). When I got to Norfolk, I got a printout about my chemistry classes but my friends were encouraging me to go into electrical engineering. This gentleman, in his wise way, opened the blinds in his office. It was a hot day. He saw the line outside to sign up for classes. He said you can either stand in line or give chemistry a try for one semester. I stayed in chemistry and loved it. Between Mr. Redd and Dr. Wall, those two have had a big impact on me and the dotted line goes from them right to Midland, Michigan.  

Q: What does receiving the MLK Jr. Drum Major Award winner mean to you? 

A-What comes to mind is Dr. King’s speech about the drum major instinct. He gave that speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. With his speech, he said some things that make sense. Drum majors are basically out front but Dr. King was a drum major for special causes. He said that’s okay with me. His causes were about justice, peace and righteousness. I can’t live a life like Dr. King but if you can live a life where you’re able to make good things happen, then you can accept being a drum major.  My first comment (after learning about the award) was in an email I wrote,  “I’m not worthy!”  Dr. King was at a level I could not have fathomed for me. You can take pride in knowing you’ve had an influence. 

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Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."