'This Virus Is Horrible': A Son's Warning to Heed Public Health Authorities After Losing Dad to COVID-19

3 min
Retired English teacher Kermit Holderman with some of his grandchildren. Holderman died after testing positive with COVID-19.  (courtesy of Zack Holderman/Facebook)

As March began, Kermit Holderman was picking up his daughter-in-law Kelley curbside at the airport after a girls’ weekend in Vail, hugging her and helping her put luggage into the car.

“My dad had a few things he loved to do. And one of those things was pick us up from the airport,” said Zack Holderman, Kermit’s son. “He'd be at the cell lot 30 minutes before the plane would land.”

As the month ended, the Holdermans were saying goodbye to the 73-year-old grandfather, father and retired educator who had in recent years taken steps to be as healthy as he could be. He died after testing positive for COVID-19.

The state reports 276 Californians have died as a result of the global pandemic. On the day of that airport pickup, there were none. Over this month, families and the health system that cares for COVID-19 patients are just beginning to make sense of what is happening.

Among them are the Holdermans, who hope Kermit’s story motivates people to stay alert to the virus’ threat.

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“People have called and said, I saw it on CNN. It wasn't really real,” Zack Holderman says. “And then when I heard about your dad, it became real.”

'The Vail Connection Has Just Been Scary'

Kermit Holderman started to feel ill just a few days after that airport trip, right about the same time that the resort town Kelley visited confirmed its first cases of COVID-19.

Colorado health officials now believe Italian snowboarders brought the virus to Vail. The Holdermans believe Kelley brought it home to California. Of 12 women who traveled and stayed in condominiums together, 10 have now tested positive.

When Kermit got to the hospital, according to Zack, “they said, you know, this thing is going around. We're gonna give you a test. You got some other symptoms that are similar.”

He found out his father had COVID-19 at about 1:30 in the morning, the first Saturday in March, by text.

Dominoes Toppling Normal Life

Kermit Holderman taught English and coached sports over four decades at schools including Holy Cross Abbey in Canyon City, Colorado; Woodside Priory, in Portola Valley; and St. Francis High School, in Mountain View. He spent the final 20 years of his teaching career at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, where he would sometimes grill outside his classroom as a treat for his students.

He taught Zack and his younger brother Dane. An A student generally, Zack says his dad rarely gave out Ds, but he only earned a B-plus from his dad.

Where his father was a poet, Zack says he’s a numbers guy; he works in mortgage lending.

So to describe how he felt that first week in March, after his father was admitted to the hospital, Zack lists what happened: His wife had tested positive but was healthy; his mother was positive too, and had symptoms, but “not getting better or worse;” the kids were out of school; the family was in self-quarantine; “economy’s going to hell,” he said. “It was just a very tough period of time and every day seemed to get a little bit worse.”

On his mind, too, was the emotional burden his wife Kelley felt, that her airport run and close contact with her father-in-law had passed a silent threat on.

All of these dominoes toppled normal life in just over a week.

“I don't want to say I was desperate,” Zack says. “I was starting to feel a little scared.”

Doctors said Holderman needed a ventilator, so they sedated him. They said it might be three days, maybe a week. But more time intubated raises a patient’s risk: of more infection, and of a more difficult recovery. And Holderman wasn’t getting better.

Kermit Holderman turned 73 in the hospital on March 27. Four days later, at the end of March, his wife, and Zack and Kelley, sat bedside layered in PPE -- gloves, masks, and gowns -- as he slipped away. Holderman’s younger son Dane, whose wife is a doctor in the Sacramento area, made the difficult decision to stay away with his young child.

“I have cried more than I've ever cried my entire life in the past three weeks, which is not a bad thing,” Zack says.

'Just Some Guy From The Sticks of Oklahoma'

Besides his family, Kermit Holderman leaves behind thousands of students he educated and coached over a 44-year career. One remembers when he showed the movie Airplane in class, but blocked the screen for the naughty parts. Another says he checked on her daily, after a family member died.

Kevin Morris, a computer science coordinator and teacher at Sacred Heart, remembers bleacher time at high school sports events, betting Holderman with hot dogs rather than money on which referee would call the most fouls, or whether the final score would be odd or even.

“I've heard him say hundreds of times, ‘What do I know? I'm just some guy from the sticks of Oklahoma,’” Morris says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

After graduating from Oklahoma State, Holderman had joined the Peace Corps; Ethiopian food became a lifelong passion.

When he taught my brother English, Holderman introduced him to berbere, a north African spice mix. Later, he went back and taught at our high school, and Holderman cooked doro wat with him; later still, he was leaving to go to grad school.

"Kermit came up to me in the hallway with an envelope," Michael Peterson remembers. "And inside of it was a bunch of that dark red berbere powder. And he said, this is the last of the good stuff that I had imported. I put a recipe in there too. A handwritten recipe for his doro wat, which is a recipe I still use today."

Zack says the Holdermans would eat doro wat and kitfo at holidays. He doesn’t know who will cook the dishes now.

He hopes the end of his father’s life can be of service, just as his father himself was.

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“Do what the people who know tell you,” Zack says. “This virus is horrible.”