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Irving Brinton Holley Jr.

Irving Brinton Holley, Jr., Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University and Major General, US Air Force (ret.), died August 12, 2013, in Durham, NC. At the time of his death he was 94 years old.

Professor Holley was a native of Torrington, Connecticut, and graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1940. He was working toward a Ph.D. at Yale University and had received the Tew Prize as Outstanding Scholar in History when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, and he enlisted in the US Army. Trained as an aerial gunner, he was commissioned at Officer Candidate School. He returned to private life as a captain after five years of active duty but remained in the US Air Force reserves until he retired in 1981 with the rank of major general, after nearly 40 years of service to his country.

He completed his Ph.D. at Yale in 1947, receiving the Townshend Prize for Best Dissertation, and then accepted a position at Duke University. Although he officially retired in 1989, he continued teaching until the age of 92, making him both the oldest and longest serving professor in Duke’s history. In 2004, Professor Holley inspired the project “Books for Baghdad,” an effort by the university community to donate scholarly books and other materials to Iraqi university libraries which had been destroyed during Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Gulf Wars. He also served on the NC Health Planning Council, the Board of Trustees of Durham Academy, and as Senior Warden at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church. He was a member of the Organization of American Historians from 1965 until 1996. 

Professor Holley’s field was American intellectual and social history with a special emphasis on the history of technology. He was the author eight books, most notably Ideas and Weapons, a study of the relationships of technology, military doctrine, and weapons development. First issued in 1953, the book has been published in four editions and is still in print. It continues as an important text for several US military staff schools and war colleges. Other books Professor Holley wrote include General John M. Palmer, Citizen Soldier, and the Army of a Democracy, and Buying Aircraft: Materiel Procurement for the Army Air Forces, a World War II official history for the US Army Center of Military History. More recently, at the age of 89, he published his last scholarly book, The Highway Revolution, 1895-1925: How the United States Got Out of the Mud.

Professor Holley taught and mentored several generations of PhD’s and in so doing made a major contribution to the field of military history. Widely regarded as one of the nation’s leading authorities on military doctrine, he continued to lecture on the subject long after his retirement from the university. He served as visiting professor at the US military academy at West Point, NY, and the National Defense University. He was a frequent lecturer at the Army and Air Force Staff Colleges, the Army, Navy, and Air War Colleges, and the Pentagon. He also lectured at the US Marine University, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Royal Swedish Military Staff College in Stockholm, Sweden.

Professor Holley was an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was a recipient of the Duke Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award, and the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize for History for his body of contributions to the field of military history. He was awarded the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and the Air Force’s Exceptional Service and Distinguished Service Medals, and the Air Force Legion of Merit. In 2007 he was the first recipient of an award named in his honor by the Air Force for individuals who have made a “sustained, significant contribution to the documentation of Air Force history during a lifetime of service.”

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Janet Carlson Holley, and his daughters Janet Wegner of Garrett Park, MD, Jean Schmidt of Greenville, SC, and Susan Holley of Clover, SC, as well as eight grandchildren and two great-grandsons. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, November 2, 2013 at The Forest at Duke, 2701 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705 at 2:00 p.m. in the auditorium.

Posted: March 19, 2014
Tagged: In Memoriam