Vernon C. Holmquist May 21, 1921 – Feb. 15, 2019

February 2019 Posted in Obituary

Some will remember him zipping through the streets of Silverton and Mount Angel on his scooter. Others may recall visiting with him at a local watering hole as he sipped a beverage; always interested in engaging in a good conversation. Friends may recount his sharp mind; quick with a story or joke.

Amidst the jumble of recollections his love of Jazz, festivals, playing the bones, and dancing – and pride in his service to his country – will come to the fore. And that’s what’s left, memories.

Vernon C. Holmquist, 97, died Feb. 15, 2019, after a self-described life where he “climbed no great mountains” but made a great many friends.

Vern was born May 21, 1921 in Sharon, North Dakota to Olaf and Elise (Stensgard) Holmquist. His father was an emigrant from Sweden; a builder, famous for constructing enormous barns. His mother was of Norwegian descent, “a good, church-going woman,” who presented her husband with Vern and later a daughter, Doris.

Sharon was “quite a complete town” in those days, with a ladies dress shop, general mercantile, a telephone exchange with an operator who doubled as the town midwife, and battery-rebuilding business – “I can still smell the battery acid off the batteries” Vern would say. The biggest building in town was his father’s.

As needed, it served as a skating rink, dance hall, wrestling arena and movie theater. The family’s apartment was in the back. Vern’s love of music, art, entertainment and socializing seemed to grow right out of that setting.

When his father could get a motion picture ahead of Fargo – as he did with the 1925 Ben-Hur – “he was king of the walk.”

In 1936 the family moved to Boseman, Montana. That’s where Vern got involved in his high school’s theater productions, which he valued to the end.  An eight-cornered box with a top hat was among his treasured possessions. 

Vern entered the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was trained in using the most advanced navigation and siting tools of the day – the Norden bombsite, and went on as a staff sergeant to train a host of others during his service with the 390th bomb group in England.

He fell in love while there, but not with a girl, with an image. When off duty he’d visited tobacconists – shops smelling of deep, rich pipe tobacco and often with a shopkeeper proud to show documents proving status as a provisioner to the royal family.

A well-worn jacket with deep pockets suitable for a pouch of fine tobacco and a pipe, a beverage and a good conversation were indelibly inked on his soul as the makings of a good life. Not so much in the money of it, but in the living of it.

After the service, although across the course of his career he’d teach dance, learn watch repair, horse ranching, sports car sales “sell the sizzle, not the steak”, and sell appliances and design office interiors, it was his years as a tobacconist at different pipe shops that made him happiest.

Vern’s pipe shop in Boseman brought him into contact with U.S. Senator Mike Mansfield. The majority leader’s appreciation of the quality of tobacco and service he received lead him to write Vern, commending both the man and his shop. Vern retained the letter from political “royalty.”

Vern met and married Jackie Hamman of Livingston, Montana. They had three children, Steve, Hildy and Jack. Her family bred Arabian horses, and Vern worked on the ranch for a while. A colt Jackie handfed went on to become cowboy star Gene Autry’s mount. After 14 years the marriage ended.

He later married Velva Stewart, who encouraged him in his dreams of a pipe shop. The couple shared responsibility for raising Vern’s three children and her daughter, Bonnie. They were married 47 years before Velva’s passing in 2007.

The couple chased their “pipe dream” across the West, sometimes with Vern owning the shop, sometimes working for someone else: Boseman and Billings, Montana; Palo Alto, California – “We sold 200 copies of the New York Times every Sunday” — and then to Leonard’s Pipe Shop in Lloyd’s Center in Portland, Oregon.

They retired to Mount Angel and in his 70s Vern took to letter writing to the local papers. In 2004 he became Our Town’s “The Old Curmudgeon.” After Velva’s passing Vern relocated to Silverton.

He fully enjoyed life right up to his last year, offering to teach a waltz class at 95.

Then, just before he turned 97, failing eyesight, diminishing hearing, and a rapid loss of balance and mobility slowed him down and pretty much kept him home at Davenport Place, where he was cared for.

When the end came, he was ready to be set free and dance again with Velva. In his last days from time to time he would tell caregivers he could see her. He greeted death as a friend.

In his last week, he made a point to say he wanted to thank his friends and his adopted town. “I’ve never seen a more welcoming community.”

He suggested those interested read a poem important to him, High Flight, by WWII pilot John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…”

There will be a toast to Vern Saturday, March 2, about 7 p.m., just before the live jazz starts at the Wine Bar in Silverton. Everyone is welcome.

His ashes will be placed next to Velva’s on March 6, at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland. Any so inclined may attend.

On Friday, March 8, beginning at 7 p.m. there will be vintage music playing at Mac’s Place for those who might enjoy a spin on the dance floor.

On Saturday, March 9, 7 p.m. The Last Good-bye will be at the Towne House. A host of Vern memorabilia will be on display. You are invited to come select a memento: a jaunty cap, a saucy cane, a political button, a photo. It’s all given freely, like his friendship.

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