In his 1970 inauguration speech as the fourth president of Simmons College, William J. Holmes talked of the need to expand programs that train women for executive-level careers.
At that point, even the leadership at the women’s school was largely a male preserve: It had never been led by a woman, and 75 percent of the department heads were men.
“Women are no longer satisfied to see themselves as conservers of culture,” Dr. Holmes said that November day. “They also want to be seen as leaders and managers. We have to redouble our efforts to find and hire more women.”
Going further, during his first few years in office, Dr. Holmes backed the efforts of Anne Jardim and Margaret Hennig, who were the founding deans of the Simmons School of Management, the nation’s first master’s of business administration program created for women.
Dr. Holmes, whose 23-year tenure as president was the second longest in Simmons College history, died Feb. 7 in Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care Cambridge, where he was treated for complications resulting from lung cancer. He was 86 and had lived in Duxbury since retiring from Simmons in 1993.
“I think the creation of the first MBA program designed for women in the country was really due to Bill Holmes’s foresight and risk-taking,” said Helen G. Drinan, president of Simmons and herself a graduate of the college’s School of Management. “That was a stroke of genius with regard to putting Simmons really out there in supporting women in their modern needs for education.”
Jardim, who was teaching at Harvard Business School when she and Hennig came up with the idea of a graduate business program for women, said that “it was an enormous leap of faith for Bill Holmes, because at that time, Simmons had a really restricted budget.”
During his tenure, Dr. Holmes also oversaw two major fund-raising campaigns, the creation of what is now the graduate School of Nursing and Health Sciences and construction of the Park Science Center and the Holmes Sport Center, which bears his name.
“He knew how to choose good people to work with — and he gave them authority — but he kept a close rein on things,” said Charles Mackey, a former dean of humanities and professor of French at Simmons. “And on a personal level, he was a very decent and fair-minded person.”
Dr. Holmes launched initiatives against a backdrop of difficult fiscal times. Many students nationwide were reconsidering attending colleges in cities. In Boston, the racial strife of public school desegregation loomed large in the early years of his tenure. Near the end, the confluence of a high murder rate and national publicity surrounding Charles Stuart’s murder of his wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart, in 1989 made Boston a less palatable choice for many college-bound women.
“It conveyed that Boston was a much more violent and dangerous city than we actually are,” Dr. Holmes said of the Stuart case in a 1990 interview.
John Robinson, a former dean of graduate studies at Simmons, said that “from the very beginning he had profound challenges in his tenure. From that time forward, he encountered more challenges. . . . The college, as a result of his diligence and his initiatives and imagination, survived and prospered.”
Nevertheless, tight finances and enrollment woes in the closing years of his presidency led to cutbacks and a no-confidence vote by faculty. Also, throughout his tenure, other women’s colleges had begun to admit men. While acknowledging that there were financial incentives to expand enrollment by welcoming male undergraduates, Dr. Holmes repeatedly insisted that such a change would not happen at Simmons.
In 1984, he encouraged Simmons students to see themselves “as warriors in the battle to help other women.”
“Only 16 percent of the freshmen we admit say that they have come because we are a women’s college, but the majority of seniors describe their experiences of being at a single-sex college as one of the most important to them,” he said.
The oldest of three children, Dr. Holmes was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his father worked as a meat packer.
“He wanted to do more and leave the small town and get into a bigger world,” said his daughter Ann Tremblay of Amherst, N.H. “He was so hungry for everything. He traveled the country; he traveled the globe. He read anything he could get his hands on. He just loved learning.”
While still in his teens, he was eager to expand his own horizons. In 1945, he went directly from high school into the Army Air Forces and was promoted to captain. Returning home, he studied English literature at the University of Iowa, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate, his daughter said.
As an undergraduate, he met Joanne Prokop on a blind date and they married in 1951. She was a speech therapist, and they raised three daughters. Mrs. Holmes died in 2001.
At home, Dr. Holmes was as encouraging to his daughters as he was to Simmons students, his daughter said. “My father felt very strongly that women and girls should have all the same advantages as men and boys,” she said.
Simmons College will announce a service for Dr. Holmes, who in addition to his daughter leaves two other daughters, Mary of Brookline and Sara Daniels of Fort Myers, Fla.; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Before becoming president of Simmons, Dr. Holmes taught English at the University of Iowa and Ohio University. He co-wrote a book on American short fiction in the 19th century. Even as an administrator he remained “somewhere in his heart an English teacher,” Robinson said.
“He loved reading,” his daughter Ann said. “He was voracious. I think he kept Amazon in business because he read so much. He loved English, and he loved to teach.”
After retiring, Dr. Holmes stopped by the college a few times a year to offer “the kind of advice and counsel that was just perfectly done,” Drinan said. “He was a true gentleman and an incredible colleague.”
Those de facto lessons in how to run Simmons College, she said, were always dispensed in ways there were supportive and encouraging, yet subtle.
“This was a very good, very decent man,” Jardim said.