Gene Hollier, 85, a Port Arthur native and long-time Clear Lake resident, indefatigable community volunteer, passed away on Sunday after a brief illness. That’s about the only passive thing that ever happened to Gene.
The retired Air Force pilot, diplomat, spy, and businessman is survived by his equally active significant other, partner in crime, and community stalwart Emmeline Dodd. He also leaves behind a sister, Kathleen Tritico and husband Guy; children, Debbie Hollier and husband John Skinner, Kurt Hollier and wife Melodie, Dennis Hollier and wife Dawn Southard, and Cathy Osoria and husband Bobby; grandchildren, Scott, Diana, Nick, Amy, Ashley, and Macy; and three great-grandchildren, Makayla, Brianna, and Nicky.
He was preceded in death by his parents Alfred Louis Hollier and Laurence dePerrodil Hollier; sisters Billie Guilbeau and Hazel Turnbull; brothers Ivan and Alfred Hollier; and his former wife Shelby “Cookie” Hollier.
Never one to sit still, Gene packed what seemed like three careers into his nearly 86 years. He was also an inveterate traveler, an amateur actor, an epicure, and a world-class raconteur.
After graduating from high school in Port Arthur, he went off to Lafayette to study math and engineering at Southwestern Louisana Institute. Just two years in, though, the Korean War broke out and Gene decided to drop out and enlist.
Gene would spend the next 20 years in the Air Force, the first two as a navigator and radar observer in the back seat of F-94s and F-89s, before getting his wings as an F-100 pilot.
In 1961, shortly after he joined the 48th Tactical Squadron in England, his career as a pilot almost came to an abrupt end. While out driving the winding country roads of Sussex, his spiffy new Austin Healy roadster was t-boned and totaled. Thus began Gene’s long friendship with medical science.
Medivaced back stateside, he spent the next 15 months in a USAF hospital in Biloxi, MS, where he had metal rods installed in his ankle and forearm, several vertebrae fused together, and a kneecap removed. For a while, it wasn’t clear if he would ever walk again, let alone fly an airplane.
When Gene was finally cleared to fly again, the Air Force decided he needed to make up for all the flying hours he had missed, and sent him to a C-130 unit at Dyess AFB in Abilene. From there, he shipped out to Vietnam, where he clocked in 178 combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Vietnam Service Medal with three bronze stars, the Air Force Combat Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, and assorted other commendations.
Gene capped off his Air Force career with two tours of duty as the Assistant Air Attache to Thailand. He spent a year in Washington, where he became fluent in both common and royal Thai and learned to read and write the complex language. While in Washington, he also studied in the Foreign Service School and learned a smattering of spycraft.
His official duties included meetings with Vice President Spiro Agnew, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and a near-miss with President Nixon. Gene liked to say that, on his secret trip to China, Nixon dined on a T-bone from the Hollier freezer.
Gene’s tour as an attache culminated with the King of Thailand awarding him the Order of the White Elephant, a form of knighthood.
After his 20 years of service in the Air Force, Gene spent the next eight years operating a residential security company.
Always a bit of a ham, Gene also did a little acting on the side, appearing in 17 episodes of the TV series Magnum PI. Some people claimed the producer cast him because he looked a little like Tom Selleck. He certainly had the mustache.
Gene found that he liked hanging out with celebrities, parlaying his Magnum experience into a variety of minor roles in movies, stage shows, and commercials. Sometimes he also crewed on a racing yacht out of Kaneohe Bay.
Gene finally retired from business in 1996 – though you’d hardly know it looking at him. In part, that’s because his life took a new and vibrant turn when he and Emmeline fell in love and formed the dynamic duo that has been making Clear Lake a better place ever since. Since then, neither of them has ever really stood still.
Gene threw himself into volunteer work, particularly the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. In 1986, he had joined the NASA Go Texan Committee, which provides scholarships to graduating seniors from the Clear Lake and Friendswood Independent School Districts. In 1996, he originated and chaired the Trail Boss Program, which has raised the equivalent of $700,000 for the HLSR’s Scholarship Fund.
Always ready with a funny story or a dubious joke, Gene was admitted to the Rodeo’s Speakers Committee in 1996. Three years later, he became Vice-Chairman; and in 1999, he was named Speaker of the Year.
Over the years, Gene arranged for more than 80 speakers and entertainers to perform at NASA. He engineered the diversion of the Texas Independence Trailride through JSC each February, and supported the construction of the Longhorn Project on the site. Not surprisingly, he also served as the liaison between the Board of Directors of HLSR and JSC. In 2000, he was awarded the NASA Public Service Medal for his work assisting JSC’s involvement with the Rodeo.
In 2003, Gene was elected to the HLSR Board of Directors, becoming a Lifetime Director in 2005. And in 2012, he was awarded the Silver Steer award for his 25 years of service to the NASA Go Texan committee.
But it wasn’t all about NASA and the Rodeo. In 2010, Gene was selected as one of the “10 Renaissance Men” in the Bay Area. The following year, he was awarded the Outstanding Friend of the Arts award by TAACCL. Another award was his being named as an honoree at the prestigious Men and Women of Heart gala, and a Super Star award from the Clear Creek Education Foundation. These awards were a sign of his enthusiasm and eclectic interests.
Every year he arranged for over 50 special speakers to appear at the Armand Bayou Nature Center. (Emmeline, if you didn’t know, was a biology professor.) He sat on the boards of directors for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Clear Lake Education Foundation, the Longhorn Project, High School Aerospace Scholars, the San Luis Hotel Condominium Council, and the Lunar Rendezvous Festival. (He was King of this festival in 2018). He was a member of the Bay Oaks Country Club, United First Methodist Church of Pasadena, Space City Corvette Club, and the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce. He actively volunteered for Communities in Schools and the American Heart Association.
Somehow, amid this whirlwind schedule of charity work and fundraising, Gene and Emmeline managed to find time to travel around the world. They visited places as far apart as Hawaii and Russia. They snow-skied in Colorado (or, in Gene’s case, sipped brandy in front of the lodge window,) snorkeled in Belize, zip lined in Costa Rica, and served as honorary guests in Nice, Normandy, and Belgium.
In between trips, they always found time to visit their condo in Galveston, sunning like teenagers by the pool, and watching the breakers roll up on the beach from their balcony in the evening.
Services are pending with a military ceremony being planned at the Houston Veterans Memorial Cemetery and a celebration of life service when his church reopens.
It is his desire, in lieu of flowers, that donations be made to The Longhorn Project at NASA- 957 NASA Parkway, #129, Houston Texas 77058.
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Published in Houston Chronicle on Jun. 11, 2020.