Donald Lee Holmquest was born on 7 April 1939 to Lillie Mae (nee Waite) and Sidney Browder Holmquest. At some point, his mother's family had anglicised their original German surname from Weitz to Waite, and she told him that her grandfather had been a gun maker in Germany. She had elected to leave school and find work at the tenth grade level so she could attend the funeral of her older brother, who was killed while working on the railroad in Chicago. Lillie never returned to school, as it was not considered all that important at that time, especially for a woman. However, she would always maintain a strong educational discipline as her own son grew up, making it clear that ''doing second best was not an option.''11
His father Sidney, whose parents were Swedish emigrants, had also left school early, giving up his education after the eighth grade so he could help support his family. He became an electrician with the local power company and, as a person with a reputation for meticulous care in anything he did, was very proud of the work he carried out for them. This love of crafting and repairing things had come in turn from his own father, who had been a cabinetmaker.
Sidney Holmquest taught Don very early in life to make and fix anything - family values that would always stick. As he grew up, Don would learn the attributes of persistence and patience when working on any task, and take immense pride in completing a difficult job, knowing he had done well.
When not playing with his friends, he also enjoyed the many simple pleasures associated with hanging out with his father, who was often more like a friend to him. ''We camped and fished and hunted together, and he taught me to love the outdoors and be self-sufficient. His attachment to building things probably steered me into math and physics, and ultimately into electrical engineering.''
Early schooling for Don was taken at Roger Q. Mills Elementary, a public school half a mile from his home. Depending on the weather, or his inclination, he would either walk to school or ride his bicycle, along the way passing many magnificent houses constructed of distinctive Austin stone, a popular post-Depression building material. The area encompassing Oak Cliff had once been an elite residential and vacation community, but as more and more lots were sold off to middle- and working-class families, bungalows and economical wood-fronted houses had begun to proliferate.
When asked what he remembered of his public school and teachers, his answer came after a little reflection. "My only recollection is that it was pretty, had a great playground, and had teachers who did in fact motivate me to do my best. I recall absolutely no science in elementary school, but I did realise a serious fondness for math."
His learning did not end when the school bell rang, however, as his mother always took care to see that his education was going well. "On my first report card in the fourth grade, I had one B. She sat me down and made it clear that there was no reason whatsoever for that grade. She made sure I reviewed my spelling words each night and my multiplication tables until they were perfect. I guess I would have been some sort of neurotic person if it had actually been difficult. As it was, I was lucky in that it didn't really cut too much into my playtime. I always found school easy, as well as the tests, which probably explains much of my success. I never took books home for homework from public school because it wasn't necessary to making top grades.''
After graduating from the W.H. Adamson High School in Dallas at the age of eighteen, Holmquest decided to undertake a degree course in electrical engineering at the Southern Methodist University, also in Dallas. He worked his way through engineering school by taking on part-time jobs in industry as a student engineer. In 1958, he joined the Dallas-based firm of Chance Vought Aircraft, which would become Ling-Temco the following year. In 1961, his final year with the firm, they merged with Ling Electronics to become Ling-Temco-Vought Electronics. ''Some of the time [I] was at Chance Vought Aircraft where I developed an interest in fighter aircraft,'' he stated. Ling-Temco-Vought would re-enter his life later on, as principal designers and suppliers of the Gemini and Apollo spacesuits.
Holmquest was able to achieve a 4.0 average at Southern Methodist, despite adding on some pre-med courses in his senior year, and graduated in 1962 with his Bachelor of Science degree. He then began working at Texas Instruments, also in Dallas, and recalls that this was where he ''designed computer chips and became fascinated with computers.''
Some time before his graduation, he had become interested in medical science, but it was certainly not his primary focus at that time. ''My entry into medicine was due entirely to a close friend, who explored medicine as a means of pursuing an interest in psychology and psychiatry. Sadly, I got into medical school easily and he did not.'' While his studies at Houston's Baylor University now occupied the better part of every week, Holmquest would always set aside some leisure time to pursue his favourite outside activities. ''Most of my close friends in my teens were from church rather than school. While I was not all that serious about religion, our church group was very close. It was my main outlet for athletics in that we had great baseball and basketball teams and lots of social events.''
It was in this group of his peers that Holmquest first met his future wife, a pretty young girl of Czech heritage named Charlotte Ann Blaha. Asked during the interview if she was related to Shuttle astronaut John Blaha, he said it was not the first time that had been asked. ''While she had Czech parents like John, they are not related to my knowledge. I don't know John's roots, but there are very large communities of Czechs in Texas, and Blaha is a rather common name.''
While studying for his doctorate in medicine, and later in physiology, Holmquest came to admire the work of Chairman of Surgery at Baylor, Michael DeBakey, MD. When he took up an internship at Baylor's affiliated Methodist Hospital in Houston studying internal medicine, he was able to continue his studies of Dr. DeBakey's work. In 1965, DeBakey introduced the use of telemedicine, when he performed open-heart surgery that was televised live to another hospital in Geneva. It was a ground-breaking event in cardiac surgery procedures, and Holmquest felt fortunate to be studying at Methodist Hospital at such an historic time, when his twin passions of electronics and medicine combined in a most innovative and practical way. Later, in 1968, Dr. DeBakey would direct the world's first multiple-organ transplantation procedure at the hospital. Meanwhile, Holmquest had begun a dissertation for his PhD, having decided that the subject would be telemetry studies of the thermal rhythms in laboratory rats.
Late in 1966, and prior to completing his doctorates and his internship, Holmquest discovered that NASA was seeking applications from qualified scientists for their second intake of scientist-astronauts. The requirements for the second group were not as rigid as those for the first, and he noticed that there was no need to have prior jet pilot experience, or even any flight time. Certain physical requirements were also a little more relaxed than before, and such things as the age limit could even be waived if the applicant was particularly highly qualified.
It was obvious that NASA and the NAS had been badly burned the first time around by their insistence on far too many inflexible standards, resulting in just 1,400 applicants. This time around, the easing of the jet pilot qualification would ensure a much larger pool from which they could draw their finalists. To sway the undecided, the National Academy of Sciences and NASA issued several bulletins, in which they described future plans for an indeterminate number of orbital and lunar flights, which would require the crew participation of scientists and medically qualified astronauts. They suggested that in around three years, the selected applicants could find themselves flying to the Moon, and perhaps on to Mars in a decade or two.
The whole idea appealed to Holmquest and he filled out an application, careful to mention that he had yet to be awarded his doctorates in medicine and physiology. The launch-pad tragedy that took the lives of three Apollo astronauts in January 1967 made him doubly aware of the dangers he could face as an astronaut, but he remained resolute. Early in March, he was informed that his application had passed the NAS screening and it would now be passed to NASA, who would resume the process of elimination and final selection. He would later discover that he was one of sixty-eight scientists to undergo this further evaluation, and was one of the eleven who made the final cut. He was now a NASA scientist-astronaut.
In 1967, Don Holmquest was awarded his doctorate in medicine, and the following year achieved a second doctorate in physiology.
In August 1967, the state of Florida was enjoying a mild celebration. Home to America's bustling spaceport, the state could finally boast its own native-born astronaut. Group 2 astronaut John Young had previously been ''adopted'' by Florida, having been raised in Orlando, but he had originally come from California. On the other hand, William Lenoir was born in the city of Miami and took his early schooling in Coral Gables, so he was perfectly happy to be associated with the south-eastern state when he joined the second group of scientist-astronauts in Houston. It was a high point of his life - a true pinnacle of achievement - and he was ready to fly to the Moon or into orbit following his training. He was not to know it back then, but Bill Lenoir would not achieve his first and only flight into space until 1982, by which time he had been with NASA for more than fifteen years.
William (Bill) Benjamin Lenoir was born on 14 March 1939, to Iona (nee Yann) and Samuel S. Lenoir. His mother was born in New Glarus, Wisconsin, in 1915, but had moved to Florida with her family when she was quite young. His father, born in 1910, came from a family well associated with Tennessee; in fact he was born in a place called Lenoir City. Originally known as Lenoir's Station, the 5,000-acre tract of land along the northern bank of the Tennessee River was named for family patriarch General William Lenoir, who, as a junior officer, had served under Colonel Benjamin Cleveland during the Revolutionary War. His eldest son, Major William Ballard Lenoir (1775-1852), had been bequeathed the land by his father, and gave the burgeoning town its name in honour of his father.12
When he was a child, Sam Lenoir's parents moved to Harriman, Tennessee, and subsequently to St. Louis, Missouri. According to Bill Lenoir, his father's family then moved to Miami in the 1920s, ''where he endured the Depression as a bookmaker (gambler). He served in the infantry during the Second World War, returning home at its completion.'' In 1943, Sam's father, Dr. Benjamin Ballard Lenoir, was killed in an accident. It was from his paternal grandfather that Bill Lenoir had inherited his middle name. His first name derived not from his famous ancestor, William Lenoir, but from his maternal grandfather, William R. Yann, a barber by trade who doted on Bill and his younger sister, Barbara (who was born in December 1940). ''In the 1950s, my father and a friend set up a swimming pool maintenance business, where my father managed the store.''
Was this article helpful?