By Leonard Gildarie
“I don’t have a problem with people considering me as that (a role model). But what I say to young people and especially young engineers, is that if you have to do something, do it well…it is the only way to do it.”
There is an instance in one’s life where a finger could be placed on that time and one could say, yes, that was the defining moment.
For Joseph Walter Holder, his manifested itself in 1952, as he was translating a Latin love poem while sitting in a classroom at Queen’s College, then an all-male school.
Faced with prospects of either being lecturer or teacher, Joe as he is familiarly known, decided that a different direction was needed. It was a life which he would not regret, and which caused him to forsake numerous opportunities to leave Guyana’s shores and live elsewhere.
Today, Holder is 75 years old, burnt red from the innumerable days in the sun, is one of Guyana’s top engineers.
He has expertly spearheaded the construction of the Demerara Harbour Bridge, run the country’s power company and helped build the Abary Bridge, which links the counties of Demerara and Berbice.
Holder is also one of the founders of the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers (GAPE).
He almost joined a weightlifting team for the Olympics but backed out at the last moment because of academic studies.
Today, Joe Holder is still footing it out on Guyana’s roads helping to supervise construction, including a project at La Penitence, where a certain section is being expanded to facilitate larger volumes of traffic.
So how did this Bartica-born stalwart make the leap from that gateway to the hinterland to the city, earning several degrees, and at one time even holding the post of Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Public Works?
This week, for his sterling contributions to the development of Guyana and as a respected engineer and teacher, Kaieteur News has chosen Joe Holder as its ‘Special Person’.
Holder was the eldest of 11 children attending the St. John the Baptist Anglican Church in Bartica.
“That (Bartica) is definitely the most beautiful place in Guyana,” he boasted.
His father, Joseph Holder, was a driver for the Transport and Harbours Department, which had an office then in Bartica; his mother was a teacher. His father also owned a gym in Bartica, which was an inspiration for Holder, even continuing to today, as he set up a gym at his current home in Ozama Street, North Ruimveldt.
In 1947, Holder won a scholarship to attend Queen’s College, becoming only the second Bartician to do so.
The Holder family later had the distinction of sending five sons to Queen’s College (QC) and four daughters to Bishops’ High School, another prestigious educational institution.
“I hated the city with its muddiness and missed Bartica. But being the eldest, I was like the role model for the rest of my brothers and sisters, and had to set an example. I really couldn’t display that displeasure.”
But he insisted that he was as focused as ever. He lived with his grandmother, and she was a great influence in this regard.
Holder rose to eventually becoming the Deputy Head Student at QC. However, engineering was nowhere in his radar.
“I did well in Maths and Arts… this was the direction I was heading in.”
It was not until fifth form that Holder felt the need to switch his attention to Science.
“Yes, that defining moment was when I was staring out the window at QC and realised that I did not want to translate any Latin love poem. That was not what I wanted,” he fondly reflected.
Consequently, Holder asked his teachers to switch his field, although he was two months behind.
At Queen’s College, Holder, while not an enthusiastic athlete earlier on, took up running, excelling at the 110 metres hurdles and becoming the shot put champion.
His excellent showing at the General Certificate of Education (GCE) earned Holder a place at the University College of the West Indies (UCWI), and he later attended the University of Birmingham, University of Toronto, University of Guyana and University of Pittsburgh, USA. Along the way, he gathered Bachelors’ Degrees in Civil Engineering and Masters Degrees at Civil Engineering and Public Works.
While at UCWI, he managed to take up swimming, earning a swimming place in a 50 metres challenge.
In 1961, on his return to Guyana from England, Holder was appointed Assistant Engineer at the Public Works Department and tasked with building the Abary Bridge, which links Berbice and Demerara. He emphasised that it was a symbolic moment for him when government recently repaired the structure and called on its constructor to supervise it.
Between 1966-1968, Holder was switched to his first love, road building, and headed that division in the Works Department, he administered projects in the Mahaica–Rosignol areas and on the Essequibo Coast, also working with consultants on the Soesdyke/Mackenzie (now Linden) Highway Project.
It was also during this time that Holder was tasked with building a 12-mile stretch of roadway between Mahaica and Mahaicony. That project finished in an impressive time of 12 months.
“We had to work day and night on that one.”
With his management skills and expertise in high demand, Holder was shifted between a number of fields, even working on establishing a hydro-project in the Upper Mazaruni area.
It was during this time that Holder married his wife, Ismay, with the union producing two sons, both of whom now live abroad.
Between 1980 and 1982, Holder was elevated from Chief Works Officer to Permanent Secretary – a whole different ballgame, as the latter was mainly an administrative function.
Demerara Harbour Bridge
For all his achievements and challenging undertakings, however, the Demerara Harbour Bridge is what many Guyanese would remember Holder for.
“After government decided to build the bridge, they had to send someone to inspect similar ones abroad. You have to understand, this bridge was a new thing for Guyana.”
Holder was the man chosen and within three years, Guyana had a bridge spanning the Demerara River linking Region Three to the capital city.
“I hear them say that when Benny Hinn came, the National Park had a large crowd. The stadium also with its concerts has large crowds, but I do believe that when the Demerara Harbour Bridge opened, that was the largest crowd ever to witness an event.”
The then President, Forbes Burnham, viewing the bridge as a major achievement, flew in a helicopter to West Demerara to commission the structure.
Holder remembers it being a hectic day. The crowd caused him to be late, and instead of meeting President Burnham at the western end of the bridge, Holder only managed to make it halfway. But the joy of its completion would suffice.
“It was and remains one of my proudest moments,” the engineer admitted.
In 1988, sections of the bridge encountered problems and the then government turned to Holder for his invaluable expertise. He returned to run the facilities for two years.
Overseeing key projects
Earlier in the ’80s, his accomplishments did not escape the attention of President Burnham.
“He (Burnham) sent his people to ask me to manage GEC (Guyana Electricity Corporation). I was not sure what to say because it was another field.”
But Burnham was insistent and met with Holder where he managed to persuade him to leave his Permanent Secretary position at the Public Works and take up the helm at the GEC as its General Manager, in 1982. He was later appointed to the Chairmanship of the state company and oversaw the rehabilitation of the Versailles Power Station.
His stint there ended in 1987 when he returned to the Public Works before retiring from public service in 1991.
However, it is now 20 years later, and there is no stopping Holder.
Government has been using him for overseeing key projects and several engineering firms have placed him as a permanent fixture on their team.
Holder has lectured to engineering students on several occasions at the University of Guyana, even switching to supervising the construction of infrastructure works in Sophia.
Philip Allsopp, one of Guyana’s top engineers in his time, has recognised Holder as a “specialist” and a notable personality who made significant contributions to the field.
In addition to being a long serving member of the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers, Holder once held the position of First Vice President of the Guyana Public Service Union, even acting as President in 1980. He was also at one time a member of the University of Guyana Council.
In 1980, his works in the field of Civil Engineering were duly recognised when he received a National Award – The Golden Arrow of Achievement, while his first college, UCWI, conferred him with the Joseph Luckhoo Memorial Prize.
Asked whether he considers himself a role model, a thoughtful Holder was diplomatic.
“I don’t have a problem with people considering me as that. But what I say to young people and especially young engineers, is that if you have to do something, do it well…it is the only way to do it.”
The well-respected engineer, who has no intentions of slowing down, says he has been repeatedly asked why he has stayed in Guyana. His reason is simple.
“This is my home. I don’t like the cold. People are always asking me why we would want to leave here and go to the cold. Honestly, many of them want to escape from that (cold).”
Today, Joseph Walter Holder is very much on top of his game, equipped with a Blackberry and refusing to work in an office. His main base is his comfortable home in North Ruimveldt. His undying passion remains construction. What a special person!
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