Cover photo for John R. Holum's Obituary
1928 John 2023

John R. Holum

1928 — 2023

Saint Paul

John Robert Holum
August 31, 1928 – January 27, 2023

John R. Holum, 94, of St. Paul passed away January 27, 2023. Retired professor of chemistry at Augsburg College
and chemistry textbook author. Born August 31, 1928, in Tracy, MN, son of Gilbert and Elvine Holum. John was
preceded in death by his wife, Mary Holum, his oldest daughter Elizabeth Johnson, and by his brother Gilbert.
Survived by daughters Ann Holum (Alex Kass), and Kathryn Holum (Glenn Baron), son-in-law Daniel (May) Johnson,
by grandchildren Sara Robinson, Ryan Johnson, Daniel and David Kass, and Marlee and Julia Baron, sister-in-law
Phyllis Mattill, family friend Gordon Braatz as well as nieces and nephews.

John grew up in Harris, MN and graduated from North Branch High School (1946), St. Olaf College (B.A. in chemistry
and mathematics, 1950) and the University of MN (Ph. D in organic chemistry, 1954). While at St. Olaf he accepted
an invitation to girl’s date night from Mary Mattill who would become the love and joy of his life. They were
married one week after they graduated from St. Olaf and shared 49 years of marriage before Mary’s passing in
1999. John began his career as a chemist at Eastman Kodak Company in 1954 before serving two years in the Army
at the Army Chemical Center in Maryland from 1955-1956. During their stay in Maryland, John was asked to teach
an evening chemistry class at the University of Maryland, and it was there that John discovered his love of teaching
and considered a change in his life’s work from industrial chemist to college professor. John and Mary made all
major life decisions together and so after sharing his interest in teaching with Mary, they decided together that
they would accept a much smaller salary and John would look for a position in teaching. Thus began John’s long
and fruitful vocation as a college chemistry professor.

John served on the faculty of Augsburg College from 1957-1993 (with one year at Pacific Lutheran University from
1958-59). He was a Science Faculty Fellow with the National Science Foundation from 1962-63 (Cal. Inst. Of Tech.)
and he earned awards from the Minnesota Section of the American Chemical Society, a Distinguished Teaching
Award in 1974, Senior Chemists Award in 2006 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from North Branch High School
Alumni Association in 2014. His primary classes were Organic and Advanced Organic Chemistry and he felt he had
an obligation to ensure that if his students could successfully perform in the Augsburg College Organic Chemistry
arena, they could also perform successfully at any graduate and medical school in the country. Indeed, many of his
students went on to become effective and prolific professors, nurses, doctors and one even received the Nobel
Prize in Chemistry. Through the many letters and tributes John received, it is clear that he didn’t just teach
chemistry. Mentor, role model, counselor, inspiration, adviser and even healer are all words his former students
used to describe his role in shaping not only their academic studies but also their understanding of hard work,
integrity, commitment, persistence, faith, and vocation. Many noted that it was his enthusiasm and energy in the
classroom that inspired them to pursue careers in teaching.

It was his year at Pacific Lutheran University where he discovered his love and gift of writing. When he couldn’t find
a “suitable” textbook for a new chemistry course for nurses, he began writing segments of instruction that he used
as his text for the class. He mentioned this work to a traveling sales rep for the publishing house John Wiley & Sons
on a routine sales visit to the University and was met with an eager “oh really, tell me more” response. His 624-
page first edition of Elements of General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry (9 th edition, 1995) was published a few
years later. While he continued to produce future editions of this text, he also added Fundamentals of General,
Organic, and Biological Chemistry (6 th edition, 1998), Chemistry: Matter and its Changes (with James Brandy and
Joel Russell, (3rd edition, 2000) and other textbooks, laboratory manuals, and study guides. Various editions were
translated into Korean, Spanish, and Italian.

Throughout his career as a textbook author, John embraced advances in technology. While his first text segments
for the nursing class were written in long-hand and given to the secretary at his church to type up, he quickly
secured his own manual typewriter and became a prolific typist. When the IBM Selectric typewriter was
introduced, he was first in line, as was the case when the early word processors came on the market. Drafts and
texts were sent back and forth first via the United States Postal Service and then Federal Express from the family
home in south Minneapolis and the cabin on Lake Vermillion outside of Cook, MN to John Wiley & Sons publishing
in New York City. For a period, John embraced the fax machine (and its horrible curly paper) as an efficient way to
send and receive manuscripts, particularly when working with his co-author Jim Brady on the Brady Holum text,
but this was subsequently replaced by the advent of the internet and email. Prior to word processing, John
completed the indexes for his textbooks manually! And while word processing helped the tedium of proofing his
work, he never entrusted his final proof to his editor or software. Rather he would print two copies of each
manuscript and he and Mary would sit at the dining room table where he would read every word, space and
punctuation mark aloud and make final corrections. All of this he accomplished while teaching full time at
Augsburg. He worked late nights and weekends throughout his professional career.

John authored one book outside, but related to, the field of chemistry. Of Test Tubes and Testaments (1965,
Augsburg Publishing House, Japanese edition, 1968) is a series of essays exploring the intersection of science and
faith, most specifically the “devilish either-or: God or evolution.” As John came of age in a deeply religious home,
he once thought he had to make a choice between God and evolution. And so, Of Test Tubes and Testaments
became his first formal attempt to reconcile the mystery of the created order with the physical reality of the
scientific method and he embraced the beauty and truth of both. Over the years, John gave dozens of talks and
lectures outside of his organic chemistry classroom on the intersection of science and faith where he shared his
absolute conviction that faith and science are not mutually exclusive endeavors. On the contrary, John viewed
science as a “window on creation” and he delighted in its beauty and exactitude as it pointed to a holy and mighty
Creator of all things.

John was a man of deep and abiding faith. Together with Mary, their shared faith was the anchor of their family’s
life. John led nightly family devotions around the kitchen table, that included a short reading from the lectionary,
brief reflection, a collective recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and often one verse of a favorite hymn such as Holy,
Holy, Holy and, during advent, Jeg er sa glad hver julekveld (I am so glad it’s Christmas Eve) sung in Norwegian. The
family shared holidays and all major events with Mary’s sisters Barbara and Phyllis and traveled each summer to
Montana to visit Mary’s sister Kathryn, her husband Herb and their boys David, Tim and Jonathan. Before every
road trip, John read Psalm 121 aloud to the family and shared a prayer for safe travel. John and Herb planned and
executed (with precision) annual six-day backpacking trips for this family group of ten into the deep wilderness of
the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. The six cousins bonded over long days on trail, strictly rationed M&M’s, and
Space Food Sticks, rained out days spent playing Hearts in tents and through these shared experiences became as
close as siblings.

We remember John’s devotion to Mary and Liz and his determination to soldier on even as his profound grief over
their deaths impacted his retirement and final years. He cherished hearing stories of his family and watching the
lives of his grandchildren unfold. He was warm and gracious, grateful and generous, faithful and humble through
his final days. As he neared the end, we watched his lips move silently in cadence to our recitation of the Lord’s
Prayer and we again read Psalm 121 aloud to him, surrounding him with the promise that the Lord would watch his
going out and coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

A memorial service for John will be held on Saturday, February 25 th at 2:00 pm CST at the Newman-Benson Chapel
at Lyngblomsten Care Center (1415 Almond Ave, St. Paul, MN 55108) where John spent the final years of his life.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to World Mission Prayer League, Augsburg University or to a charity of
the donor’s choice.

To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of John R. Holum, please visit our flower store.

Service Schedule

Past Services

Memorial Service

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Starts at 2:00 pm (Central time)

Lyngblomsten Care Center - the Newman-Benson Chapel

1415 Almond Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55108

Enter your phone number above to have directions sent via text. Standard text messaging rates apply.


Visits: 1

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the
Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Service map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

Send Flowers

Send Flowers

Plant A Tree

Plant A Tree