A Gift for Storytelling

By Kevin Tankersley

City communication director Larry Holze retires after 22 years

Larry Holze’s last official day with the city of Waco was April 30, but he wasn’t in the office much for a month or so prior to that. He was using up a bunch of holiday and vacation days he had built up in the 22 1/2 years he was the city’s communication director. He oversaw the city’s communication efforts during times of crisis and during the recent resurgence of downtown and of booming tourism. He was the driving force behind WCCC-TV, the city’s television station — going so far as hanging the lights in the studio.

But that’s all behind him now. He still gets phone calls about city affairs, and Holze, being who Holze is, always says, “Love you. Let’s keep in touch,” but gently reminds the caller that city business is no longer his business.

Holze has three children and six grandchildren, and he plans to spend more time with them, since being the go-to communications guy for the city meant he was often on call, at all hours. Holze’s wife, Judy, who died in 2001, kept a lovely backyard, he said, and he’s got some work to do there as well.

WACOAN: What did you do before you worked for the city?

Holze: Well, my dad started Holze Music Co. back in 1937, and I ended up working there. In seventh grade, I would walk over there, and I’d work at the music store. And my brother did [too]. He’s four years old than I am. We always worked after school.

I graduated and had aspirations to work in radio. My uncle lived in Tyler, and he knew the owner of one of the radio stations in Tyler. So I ended up going to Tyler Junior College at that time as a freshman. The guy gave me a part-time job, and it worked out real good because I got the experience but then came back and obviously joined the music company. But that gave me broadcast experience and helped me learn how to use my voice more.

When I came back to Waco, not only was I doing all the marketing, advertising, TV commercials, all that kind of stuff for the music company, but I got to work with Frank Fallon and a couple other people. He was station manager at KWTX, so he gave me a few little hints about how to use your voice, so I got some good benefits from some of the best.

My dad died in 1980, and [my brother and I] ran the business until we sold it in 1992, the same year I was on the city council, 1992 and ’93. Then I worked there until ’97 and was basically looking for something else to do because I was way too young to retire. The Lord dropped a miracle, [using] all the gifts and talents that I was given, voice, personality, at the music store I was always doing marketing and public relations.

WACOAN: Where did you go to college after Tyler?

Holze: I went to Baylor. But all along, I was working at the music company. All along I knew I was going to be working there.

I eventually became in charge of radio and television ministry at the First United Methodist Church. I did that for a number of years. Set up a television station completely, engineered it, purchased the equipment, set up the volunteer staff and everything else.

My dad taught me a long time ago how to fix almost anything. I inherited my genes from him. He could fix anything.

WACOAN: Was the position at church a job or a volunteer position?

Holze: It was volunteer.

WACOAN: And you went from the music store to the city?

Holze: A good friend of mine was director of parks and recreation, Max Robertson, a church buddy. He put me in touch with Kathy Rice, who was a brand-new city manager. We hit it off, right off the bat.

She was needing a head of communication of the public information department. On August 18, I went to work on a 90-day trial contract basis. I didn’t know if I wanted it, and I know she didn’t know what she wanted. But it just went great. I was officially hired November 18, 1998, as the director of the department.

WACOAN: Your last day was April 30, but you took some time off before that day.

Holze: I have 39 days of holiday and vacation stored up. My wife, Judy, passed away in 2001. So I’ve been single, and I didn’t want to remarry. Most of this backyard was all her; I haven’t kept it up like I need to. I need to work on it.

She was a gift to the world. God gave me the blessing of angels. She was my gift. She had ended up with a glioblastoma brain tumor. Four months later, she was gone. But she and I did everything together. We were on paid staff at First Methodist Church as children’s worship leaders, and I’m still over there right now as children’s worship leader.

WACOAN: Why did you decide to retire now?

Holze: Well, I’m 76 years old. I’m not frail by any means; I’m in great health. But you know, Larry Groth, when he was city manager, I kept asking him, ‘Larry, when you gonna retire?’ He said when it stops being fun. And frankly, it’s kind of gotten that way.

You have to understand the fact that when I went to work for the city, television was probably 80% of the communication world. Everybody watched TV. Everybody listened to the radio. The internet had been invented, but it was in its infancy. No social media, all that kind of stuff.

I’m being a little selfish — I’ll be honest with you — being the director of a communication department and I don’t do any of the social media stuff. I follow it a little bit, only my family. But I don’t post.

The city manager and the city are right now starting a communication audit, evaluating the overall communication, what’s needed and things, which probably should have been done years ago. And we’re getting ready to start on the budget. So there’s a couple of triggers that happen. Why would I go through all that and then decide somewhere in that time, within the next year or two [to retire?] It’s probably time.

Now, there are things I frankly am missing already, and I’m hoping that I will be able to continue to do voluntarily or some other way.

WACOAN: What are you missing about working at the city?

Holze: The broadcast part of it. I am the chief engineer for that television station, WCCC. Probably 80% of all that equipment I personally installed. Hung the lights, aimed the lights, wired things, everything. The website, the livestreaming, all that kind of stuff.

Not only have I installed and hooked up 80% of all that equipment, I’m the one that’s taking care of the maintenance on everything too right now. There’s something that breaks down, all the younger people say, ‘Larry, what do we do?’ So I still want to be involved.

One of the best things I did at the city was I hired an incredibly talented, great group of people. Because as a manager, you can only do as good as your people do. That’s something my dad told me. He said the greatest asset of Holze Music Co. is our people. Not the products, not anything else. It’s the people we hire and how well they take care of the customers and how they do their job.

You hire quality people, tell them what you expect out of them and step out of the way. Let them do what God gave them the talent to do. And that worked every time with us. I did the same thing with the city.

One of the first ones I hired was Mark Randolph. He and I developed a fantastic relationship. He has a real keen interest and desire to tell the story of Waco history, and that’s one of the first things he and I decided [to produce].

When I got hired, the TV station had the city council meetings on it, the planning commission meetings on it and an occasional Summer Sounds concert, and that was about it. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got my own TV station. What can I do with that?’

So [Mark] was my first hire, and we set out to put together a TV station that would compete with anything in the country. We started producing programming, a whole lot about the history of Waco, because the history of Waco was not being told.

Through the 22 years, he and I have produced a lot of really great history stories. One of the main ones we set out in 2003 to do a 30-minute documentary on the Waco tornado. Well, we put out inquiries of people who had stories to tell. We called it ‘The 1953 Waco Tornado: The Untold Stories.’ It ended up being an hour and 57 minutes.

My style of interviewing has proven very successful for this. I don’t want to know your background. I don’t want to do research on you. Because chances are, I’m going to find out what other people have asked, and those stories have already been told. So my style of interviewing that has really worked great on all the history projects is, ‘Kevin, the tornado was on May 11, 1953. What were you doing on May 10? Tell us what you were doing.’

The camera’s running. You’re sitting there, and I’m just gonna shut up. And you know that and you’re starting to unwind, and you’re telling me things and you’re talking. I’ll let you talk until you stop talking. I keep sitting there. They know the camera’s still running. Their mind is digging. ‘I’ve gotta say something. He’s not going to.’ It’s amazing what you pull out.

I did an interview with a Vietnam vet. I think he was a colonel, African American gentleman. I think Allen Smith was his name. He had a tremendous story. But after it was over, his son came to me. He says, ‘I’ve heard him tell stories today that I’ve never heard before.’ And I’m not patting Larry on the back. This is a gift that God gave me. I’m a good listener. I may not be a good interviewer, but I’m a good listener.

We ended up doing three two-hour documentaries on the Waco tornado: ‘The Untold Stories,’ [‘More Untold Stories,’ and] ‘Images and Reflections.’ Because by the time the first one aired, about a year later, we started having people show up with pictures and home movie film, 8-millimeter, and things that they wanted to share. They wanted to help tell the story.

There is story after story that we documented like that. Go to our website, wccc.tv. We have about 60 to 80 programs on Waco history. Two major documentaries that we did, that I was passionate about, one of which we fell into it was about the Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant.

The Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant was out at McGregor, where Rocketdyne and all those other things evolved from. Nobody knew it. It was one of [four] bomb manufacturing places in the country for World War II. They turned out millions of bombs. And people didn’t know. It was the best-kept secret.

We did an interview with a guy that worked for the Cotton Belt Railroad. He said, ‘I remember backing railcars in there and it said bananas on it. I knew there were no bananas in there.’ You never knew what it was. Well, it was bomb-making stuff.

One of the hardest ones we did, and we worked on this for probably four or five years, was Camp MacArthur. That story never really had been told. I found a document. It’s still right now at the Waco library downtown. Sean Sutcliffe, he is a research person at the [Waco-McLennan County Library], he came across a book. He said, ‘Larry, I have a book that we really didn’t even know we had.’ It was a little paperback. It documented all the history of what went on at Camp MacArthur.

I did a 60-minute setup and read the prompter. Then Mark Randolph, an unbelievable kind of guy that knows how to dig up pictures from the National Archives and everything else, he came up with pictures. Very rarely was I actually on camera.

Those are just examples of stories that need to be told. And I really feel like the people of Waco, whether you’re brand new to the city or not, if you get into any of that history, you really become a real Wacoan, somebody that really has a passion for the city because you understand what Waco means, not today, but how for generations, it’s evolved and has become such a great city with a history and a story.

“I was Larry’s first hire at the city. He hired me in April of 1999. We worked together for 22 years, and he always told people as we wrapped up an interview that I was the best thing he ever did at the city. Working for Larry was enjoyable; he made it fun. He always put God first, family and then work. We are both lifelong Wacoans and love the unique history of Waco.”
— Mark Randolph, station manager, Waco City Cable Channel

WACOAN: Except for your time in Tyler, have you been in Waco your whole life?

Holze: Absolutely. Born and raised. This used to be our family farm out here. We had a farm. My dad built his property in 1944 when I was born.

WACOAN: You’ve seen Waco change quite a bit then.

Holze: Absolutely. Back when I was on the city council in 1992 and ‘93, District 5, I had the music company. I had been president of the Better Business Bureau, president of the symphony association, president of Rotary. I knew what you needed to do to be in business.

We had always talked about how Waco was a best-kept secret, and what’s it going to take to make people want to think about Waco and for Waco to grow like other cities. Obviously, Chip and Joanna [Gaines] had a major change to get that type of publicity, which you can’t buy. You have two good, Christian individuals.

I knew Joanna and her dad, Jerry Stevens, because their Firestone [store] was right across from Holze Music on Lake Air Drive. We bought all of our tires there. For them to come in and be the quality people they are true to life, not fake, that did more than we could have ever bought.

The statistics say, before Chip and Joanna started their empire, as it is around here, tourism in Waco was about 850,000 [visitors] a year. The last couple of years, it’s been over 2.8 million. You tell me.

WACOAN: I didn’t realize it was that high previously.

Holze: That’s the number that the [Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau] has used. It’s [tripled]. I’m happy to give them credit for it, because they are great people. And, of course, along with everything else, what’s happened downtown, entrepreneurs and people have stepped in and assumed things and talents that God gave them to be able to use for bettering the quality of life in Waco, too. And obviously, the citizens of Waco are benefiting from it. Some of them don’t appreciate it, but we’re getting the restaurants. We’re getting the things like Topgolf, all those things that we would never get if we weren’t on the map.

And obviously, Baylor. One of the things [that has changed] since I joined the city is the relationship with Baylor University. It wasn’t always that good. It was always the ‘Baylor Bubble.’ And I think when Larry Groth was city manager and when Ken Starr was president, the relationship was like it should have been. It couldn’t be better now.

One of the first things that hit me when I left the city — and keep in mind, we just finished having that week of winter that we had. I spent the night down at City Hall in my office Monday night because we had a city council meeting that had to happen on Tuesday. The way it is with the virtual meetings, if we couldn’t telecast it, it had to be canceled. So this little boy wasn’t going to let anything [stop the meeting].

I’ve done city council meetings for 22 years and have not lost one yet. It’s all been broadcast and telecast, no technical issues, nothing that has kept it from being broadcast. Well, now that it’s required that it be broadcast and streamed, I wasn’t going to let it not. So I got myself down there and I was going to spend the night down there so I could be sure to run all the equipment and pull the Zoom meeting and put it in broadcast. Then I spent the next three nights at the Hilton.

When I got home on my first several days of vacation, I had a hard time watching the news, reading the news or anything else, because I realized I didn’t have to. Because for 22 years, I have crafted, written, created, released the majority of the information coming from the city. Then, part two of that, I worried how reporters were going to take that information and how it was going to be published, how it was going to be broadcast. I worried constantly how the reporter was going to take that story and how it’s going to come over. But the stress of that is gone. I’m no longer responsible for putting out that information.

“The first thing one notices about Larry is that he has that quintessential radio voice. It’s just a delight to hear. Next, Larry is a consummate professional who is knowledgeable, eager to help and very courteous. If he doesn’t know the answer or have the information you seek at his fingertips, he knows who to talk to and where to find it. I have the greatest respect for Larry. He will be missed.”
— Tommy Witherspoon, Waco Tribune-Herald reporter

WACOAN: And being in public information for a city, you were pretty much on call all the time, I would assume.

Holze: Yes, 24/7. The public information officer is appointed by the city manager but dedicated to being the single spokesperson for the city during a time of crisis or disaster. I’m over the police and fire and all those people. The fire guys do their own stuff. Police have their own [public information officer]. But when it comes down to a disaster that involves multiple departments, it all comes to me.

But it’s been fun. It’s a blessing. God brought me this without question, gave me the opportunity. Because he gave me the talents of personality, my voice, management of people, public relations, marketing, advertising, all those kinds of things, exactly what this job with the city was.

To me, in addition to hiring the fantastic staff and having a family atmosphere, but then the second thing is, obviously, creating the TV station.

WACOAN: The TV station won a lot of awards, didn’t it?

Holze: Absolutely. Mark and I — and I’ve hired other people as well, so we have a total of two video producers, Mark is the station manager and the photographer. We made that station a full-blown, 24/7 broadcast station. On the hour, on the half hour, everything started just like a broadcast station does.

And we filled it with programming. Our programs don’t run sometimes much more than five or 10 minutes. Some of them run 26 minutes. But what we filled it with is a whole bunch of short subjects.

We have a series that I created called ‘Waco: A Moment in Time.’ They’re history of Waco things. They’re two or three minutes. I wrote all those scripts. There are about 65 of them.

Bradley Turner, he works at MCC. He wrote a book that was published at TSTC, [‘Lust, Violence, Religion: Life in Historic Waco’]. We got him to come in and do those and voice them and everything. We have probably 25 or 30 of those that are little, short segments. We went and shot video and told those [stories].

We have a series, probably 50 or more of these, called ‘Serve it Up, Waco.’ Why don’t we try to feature locally owned [restaurants], George’s and some of those others? Just let them cook their favorite dish and go back to the kitchen and let them show that.

We’ve got about 20 or more series, and each one’s got 40 and 50 [episodes]. Our inventory is just huge now. So consequently, in 2006 I guess it was, we were going and blowing, great programming and still doing the council meetings and all that kind of stuff. Matt Rohre, he was vice president of Grande Communications, he came up to me and said, ‘Larry, how would you like to have an HD channel?’

You need to understand some technology here. Nobody wants to give up the bandwidth for [a high-definition] channel because you can push six standard-[definition] channels in the same bandwidth as one HD channel. And [channels] 6, 10, 25 and 44 were all just getting ready to launch their HD channels too. In December of 2008, we went on the air is the first high-definition city channel in the country.

You need to understand, first of all, what helped make this possible. The state legislature, in their infinite wisdom, created a fund that charged 1% of what the cable companies do, and it goes for capital equipment for the city channel. So manna from heaven started dropping down. Not one dime has been spent from the city’s coffers or taxes or anything else. This money has come forward, and it continues to come forward. We have close to $2 million invested in that station now.

But [Mark Randolph and I] would go out to Las Vegas to the National Association of Broadcasters convention and look at the latest and best [equipment]. And we were able to buy it, within reason obviously. We didn’t go crazy.

Some of the reporters would come into our studio to do a sound bite with me about a story and would say, ‘You guys have got better stuff than we do.’ And we did. But we went on the air as the first high-definition city channel in the nation. And when some of the other cities would see our badges at the committee, you’re from Waco. How did y’all get an HD channel? Because it was four or maybe five years later before any other cities were able to negotiate or work it out.

But Matt Rohr realized the value of the programming that we had on our channel. You couldn’t get it anywhere else, the history of Waco, all the Waco stuff.

We are now doing [14] monthly, 30-minute talk shows. We make available to all three chambers, Greater Waco Chamber, the [Cen-Tex] Hispanic Chamber, the [Cen-Tex] African American Chamber. Once a month a representative, their PR person, comes in our studio, and they do ‘Chamber Connection,’ which is the Greater Waco Chamber; ‘Noticias,’ which is the Hispanic chamber’s program; and ‘Community Wise,’ which is the African American chamber.

Prosper Waco has a 30-minute program. The health district has a program, [‘Health Wise’]. I’ve been hosting one called ‘For Your Safety;’ police, fire and emergency management each participate. We make these programs available and air them on our channel and then let them have a link to it and they put it on their website.

WACOAN: What are some of your favorite memories from working with the city?

Holze: Well, working with my staff, of course, is the best. Telling the stories of the history of Waco is without question, kind of a legacy.

I love people. I’m a people person. I love answering the phone. When a citizen called up and they were upset about something, I could normally answer their question and make them feel good and help them. The city is a service-oriented business. I love being able to communicate things about the city that I love and have for 76 years.

WACOAN: What are some of the challenges that you faced?

Holze: Obviously, we call it the CAFO. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, which was the pollution coming down the North Bosque [River], the bad taste and odor that was eventually fixed with the investment by the city of $43 [million] to $50 million in the DAF, dissolved air flotation system, which is a pretreatment plant that is located below the dam right now. It takes the water out of the lake and pretreats it and gets it like 80% pure before it’s sent up to the Mount Carmel [Treatment Plant] or down to the water treatment plants for conventional treatment. They’re having to use far less chemicals and everything now.

This is back when Linda Ethridge was mayor. She was an amazing mayor. That was a major deal because we had congressmen, senators, all the rest of them here trying to fight the battle with the [Environmental Protection Agency] to do what we asked them to do. We asked them to maintain the standards that were already in place and require the dairy industry to control their pollution, which was coming down.

Every time there was a major rainstorm, their retention ponds and things would overflow. It’s just like tripping the handle on the commode. It would flush down and come into our lake and cause algae bloom, bad taste and odor. We had a terrible reputation. It was impacting economic development, and you can’t sell bad stuff. That was one of the major things that we helped participate in and work with.

Now, you talk about issues the pandemic created because we started on, I guess it was March 17 was the first press conference we had. I was in charge of putting a press conference together. I would craft the press release, put it out. We would set up the room, set up the mult box for the mics. I took care of all that kind of stuff. We’d have a weekly press conference every Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. We did that for 47 weeks in a row, 47 or 48, before we stopped, about the time I announced my retirement. I was kind of a moderator for that. I would get the questions and send them to the mayor. He would assign them. And so that whole process of putting together the press conferences, it was fun, but it was an important responsibility that I had to communicate the things that people needed to know about how the pandemic was being handled locally.

I also personally issued the 4 o’clock press releases about how many cases we had, how many deaths we’ve had, all this kind of stuff. I did that every day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, holidays, Saturdays, Sundays, for close to 300 [days] before they decided to stop. I did that personally, from my home or from wherever else. I felt the responsibility, and I enjoyed doing it. I tried to keep my staff busy doing the things that they could do that I couldn’t do.

“Whenever I saw Larry, I would yell out ‘Holze!’ Every single time, in my best radio announcer voice. I did that because Larry Holze was one of the voices of Waco. I got to know Holze when Mom was on Council. She often spoke highly of him as they got to know each other during her tenure. As a student of journalism, I started watching how he created programming for WCCC and how he delivered the stories of Waco. He had a gift for storytelling, and during his tenure used his wonderful radio voice, keen eye and heart for our city to narrate the stories of our citizens and community.”
— Waco City Council member Andrea Barefield, whose mother, Dr. Mae Jackson, joined the council in 2000 and became Waco’s first African American female mayor when she was sworn in on May 24, 2004.

WACOAN: What are you going to do now?

Holze: I’m doing things that I have put off. A lot of yard work that I’ve been putting off. One of the projects that I did start that I’m really passionate about is a weekly radio program I started almost 17 years ago. It used to be on ESPN 1660 and 92.9 FM only. It’s now in five iHeartRadio stations as well.

It’s called ‘City Talk.’ It is a weekly radio program, 29 minutes, that I put together. I basically interview people of interest that people need to know subject-wise. For example, I interviewed Wes Allison [president and CEO of the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo] about The Base building [at the Extraco Events Center] just prior to it opening, because our citizens need to know all about it.

I interviewed Dr. Sheryl Victorian, the first woman and first African American police chief for Waco, a sweet, wonderful lady. And I didn’t ask her the typical questions, what everybody else has asked her. I wanted to know about her family, about her childhood. I want to find out about the person. What do you do when you’re not a cop?

I interviewed Joe Don Bobbitt, very timely, with the McLennan County Appraisal District. Everybody’s gotten their appraisal notices. They want to know what they’re supposed to do. I do that every year. I have a list of programs I kind of follow.

I want to keep that going. And I’m hoping that I’ll have the opportunity to continue doing that radio program past my retirement. I’ve had a lot of people, council members included, mention, ‘Oh, yeah. You need to keep that going because it’s part of the community.’ And by doing that, while I’m in the studio, I can continue the voice, because I’ve been the voice of Waco.

On the television station, we do a weekly news program called ‘City Beat.’ It constitutes three or four stories of interest, one of which obviously will be the Baylor men’s parade yesterday. They’re writing a script right now. They’ll have it ready tomorrow morning when I go in. I’ve been going in Thursday morning and recording a radio program and the voiceovers. I’d like to keep doing that, as long as the Lord lets my voice keep going and because I think I have a gift.

The talents that God gave me, I feel like he’s given me the opportunity, when he laid this job out in front of me, to be able to communicate things about city that I love.