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Bob Holden : A man from Birch Tree

April 03, 2001
By: Lauren Shepherd
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The turn-off onto Highway 99 would be easy to miss without the small green sign posting the name of the folksy little town Gov. Bob Holden once called home.

Birch Tree. Population: 599.

Even with the town limit sign sitting proudly on the side of the two-lane road, you might miss the whole darn thing if you blink.

In the abandoned Mercantile Exchange, the old Pepsi-Cola sign and the quaint quilt shop, you'd see the history of this town that lies somewhere in time between the once-thriving city supported by the timber industry and the ghost town of today.

You'd also get a glimpse into the mind of the farm boy who grew up to become governor.

Born in Kansas City but raised in Birch Tree, Holden, 51, still has the accent and the measured speech of small town, rural Missouri. With his small, dark eyes, medium build and smile, Holden looks more like a prematurely bald Midwestern farmer than a successful politician.

Reserved and soft-spoken, Holden gives the impression that he thinks before he speaks, and strives to say the right thing to make a listener feel at ease. Bantering with reporters, he asks as many questions as he answers.

His family and friends maintain that Holden has not changed since his days in Birch Tree and his college years in the early 1970s a few hours down the road at Southwest Missouri State University.

"Except for he doesn't have near as much hair as he did...and he may be a little bit heavier, he hasn't really changed at all," said his wife Lori Hauser Holden, his wife since the two met while Holden was working for then-state Treasurer Jim Spainhower in 1973.

Those closest to him agree that his roots have instilled strong family values, dedication to education and a belief in the value of hard work -- characteristics Holden says influence his role as governor.

"There may be people out there that can outspend me or have more connections than me, but no one will ever outwork me," Holden says, sitting in his spacious governor's office and gingerly holding his tea-filled Governor Holden mug.

Holden's parents, Lee and Wanda Holden, owned and operated a farm a few miles outside of Birch Tree while Holden was growing up. The young boy and his father worked long hours haying and taking care of crops.

The long days of work have continued for Holden in the governor's office. Since becoming governor in January, he has spent only two days not working.

"He never lets up, he never quits," says Speaker of the House Rep. Jim Kreider, D-Nixa. "I wonder if I could keep up with him."

Holden's former spokesman, Jerry Nachtigal, agrees that Holden's dedication to his job is one of his best qualities.

"I'd like to know how many hours of sleep he gets a night," Nachtigal says.

His dedication to his job, as well as his belief in the need for education, came together during Holden's three terms as a representative in the state House.

After funding for Southwest Missouri State University had been defeated in the Senate, Holden refused to back down. Holden did not get angry or frustrated; he's too even-keeled. Instead, Holden and Lori began making phone calls to school alumni and lobbyists until enough pressure was put on the legislature to reinstate the funding to the school.

Holden's passion for education was evident throughout his gubernatorial campaign. He staged several campaign events in front of a one-room schoolhouse he attended in first grade. The schoolhouse still remains on the edge of the Holden farm in Birch Tree.

He says he wants to be remembered for helping Missouri's children, specifically through improving education.

"I want to be viewed as someone who cares about the state's children," Holden says loudly with a thoughtful look on his face.

"One of these days, I'd love to be a teacher," he adds with a smile.

Holden traces his belief in education to that one-room schoolhouse in Birch Tree where his first-grade teacher still lives.

Her house, though, may be hard to find. The locals don't give detailed directions -- no street names or house numbers. Just good old-fashioned pointing.

You could ask the town barber, Bill Reed, for a hand.

One of the town's old-timers, Reed has heard it all while shaving and snipping and clipping the men of Birch Tree. Like many small-town barber shops, the location has become a town meeting place where locals debate issues.

Holden has created a barber shop of sorts himself in the governor's office. Although there is no Bill Reed cutting hair and discussing grandchildren, there is a great deal of discussion. After only a few months as governor, Holden has cultivated a reputation as someone who tries to build a consensus.

"Holden has a lot of ideas," Nachtigal says. "He likes to throw a lot of ideas out there for discussion. He likes a consensus."

Nachtigal cites several meetings where Holden questioned staff members about their views of the death penalty before executions. Holden says he depends on his staff to help him make difficult decisions.

"I think I've got a very good staff," Holden says. "If there's any merits to not moving forward I want to know about it."

Nachtigal also says Holden's transportation plan demonstrates a belief in the value of a consensus. The governor was criticized for not introducing a plan to fund highway repairs across the state in his State of the State Address in January, Nachtigal says the governor believed he needed to wait to hear both parties debate the issue.

Nachtigal adds that the decision was a smart one since the governor must now deal with a Republican party who is only now discovering its power in the state. Republicans gained a majority in the state Senate for the first time in over 50 years after the special elections in January.

Holden has already been under fire from Republicans since taking the governor's oath. When the governor called a press conference in February to introduce a plan to use the money from the state's portion of the national tobacco settlement to supplement the state's tight budget, only Democrats stood behind him.

No Republicans were invited to the event and the state House Republican leadership subsequently rejected the idea to use the $127 million in tobacco money. The Speaker and several House Democrats, who are still in the majority, followed suit and the measure failed to pass the House by 18 votes.

But Nachtigal says Holden's decision to wait to hear from both parties before formulating a transportation plan proves that the governor does try to involve Republicans in the decision-making process.

"Even if he had Democrats in charge of both chambers he would be the type that would be out there involving Republicans heavily," Nachtigal says.

Besides a belief in gathering a large number of opinions, the small community in south central Missouri has also given the governor humility -- a trait that most mention when describing the state's leader.

Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, sat next to Holden when the two first served in the state House in 1983.

"His lack of ego is very unique," Jacob says. "When you come from a little bitty town like that, you're nothing special. There's nobody else there to compare yourself with."

After serving in the House, Holden decided to run for Treasurer. He was defeated by one percentage point when the results rolled in at 4 a.m. that day after Election Day in 1988.

Riding home early that morning with Lori, Holden was quiet and reflective. Instead of lamenting his loss and nursing a bruised ego, Holden spent the next day developing a plan for the future.

"This certainly wasn't a defeat, so to speak," Lori says. "It was just making it a little bit of a longer road."

Three years later, Holden became state Treasurer.

"Usually people with big egos want to be governor," Jacob says. "But I think he wanted to be state treasurer. I think that was more or less his goal."

With his two young boys, Robert Lee, 10, and John D.,6, and Lori by his side, Holden assumed the top post in the state in January. Sitting now in his office on the second floor of the state Capitol, Holden's eyes still light up with any mention of the poor town of Birch Tree and the days spent playing baseball and basketball with his friends on the fields of the state he loves.

"I truly feel like I'm a Missourian," Holden says. "I'm who I am. I'm very comfortable with who I am."