Former Gov. Linwood Holton was remembered Sunday as a landmark Virginia political leader who embraced school desegregation and heralded the start of robust two-party political competition in the state.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin were among 10 Virginia governors who attended the tribute at Richmond’s Second Presbyterian Church.
Holton, Virginia’s first Republican governor of the 20th century, held the office from 1970 to 1974. He died in October at age 98.
“History had its eyes on you, Governor Linwood Holton,” former ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton said in her eulogy.
Compton, who began her career in Roanoke and then became a Virginia statehouse reporter, said that on Monday, Aug. 31, 1970, Holton created “a defining moment.” The governor, accompanied by a Capitol Police officer, escorted his smiling daughter Tayloe to Richmond’s majority-Black John F. Kennedy High School.
Holton’s belief in civil rights and school desegregation was crystallized in a news photograph that ran in papers across the country.
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Compton noted that in a South in which “governors once stood in the schoolhouse door,” David Brinkley opened that night’s “NBC Nightly News” with images of Holton and his daughter charting a new path in Virginia. Compton said that the following morning, The New York Times ran the story on its front page, along with “a photograph that captured a moment of national shift.”
The legislature had just 31 Republicans among its 140 members when Holton took office, but he lived up to his mantra that “It’s Opportunity Time,” Compton said.
“He relished bucking the stubborn establishment,” she said. He did so in big ways — such as creating a Cabinet system and steering tax money to clean Virginia’s waterways — and in small ways, such as ordering a dark blue limousine instead of a black one.
Nadine Marsh-Carter read a message from her father, Henry Marsh, Richmond’s first African American mayor and a longtime state senator.
“His genuine belief in the humanity of all people and all races” is “what made him special,” Henry Marsh said. “Governor Holton’s willingness to walk the walk helped break the back of segregationists and fueled integration in our schools.”
Son Dwight Holton said that his father made a point to find a balance between work and family. He drew a laugh from the governors in attendance by noting that his father left the governor’s office at 6 p.m. each day and bounded up the stairs at the Executive Mansion, saying: “Governor no more!”
He said his father believed a governor who could not finish the day’s duties by 6 p.m. was not delegating properly.
In 1969, Holton became the first Republican elected governor of Virginia since 1881. His election began decades of robust two-party competition as Virginia threw off vestiges of the segregationist Democratic “machine” of Harry F. Byrd Sr.
From Holton’s election to the election of Republican Youngkin on Nov. 2, Virginians have elected seven Republican governors and seven Democratic governors.
Holton was the father-in-law of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a Democrat who served as governor from 2006 to 2010. Anne Holton, another of the late governor’s four children, lived in the Executive Mansion as a child and then again as first lady.
Holton, born in Big Stone Gap, was renowned for his political perseverance. He lost two campaigns for the House of Delegates in the 1950s and his first bid for governor in 1965, but defeated Democrat William Battle for governor in 1969.
He and his wife, Virginia Harrison Rogers, known as Jinks, married in 1953.
In addition to his wife, Holton is survived by four children: Tayloe Loftus, a physician in Syracuse, N.Y.; Anne Holton, of Richmond, a former judge and state secretary of education; A. Linwood III, who goes by Woody, a historian and professor at the University of South Carolina; and Dwight, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor in Portland, Ore.
Virginia is the only state that bars governors from serving consecutive terms, so Virginia has an unusually large roster of former governors. When a new Virginia governor is inaugurated — as Youngkin will be on Jan. 15 — predecessors who are able to attend traditionally gather with the new member of the club for a portrait. Holton faithfully took part in the quadrennial rite into his late 90s.
On the day of Northam’s inauguration in January 2018, Holton sat front and center in a photo of 11 Virginia governors. (Former Gov. Gerald Baliles died in October 2019.) Virginia’s nine living governors are Chuck Robb, Doug Wilder, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Sens. Mark Warner and Kaine, Bob McDonnell, Terry McAuliffe and Northam.