LaNelle and Perry Holland’s love story begins with a blind date on a winter evening in 1968.
A mutual friend invited LaNelle to join him in a gathering at Perry’s house in Kennesaw. By the time LaNelle arrived, the roads were slick with ice. It was too dangerous to drive anywhere.
The Hollands’ first date never left a living room couch.
Instantly smitten, LaNelle and Perry stayed up through the night talking about music, politics, sports (they were both passionate Georgia Tech football fans).
LaNelle, a pretty woman with pale blue eyes and a sweet smile, looked lovely in a yellow pantsuit. Perry, also attractive, wore his varsity letterman jacket.
The next couple of nights, they continued to talk by phone for hours. And then, just three days after meeting each other, while sitting in Perry’s truck outside a gas station in Atlanta, Perry turned to LaNelle with a proposal.
Hey, girl, you want to be my wife?
And so a marriage began. They exchanged vows later that month on Jan. 25, 1968.
Sometimes people wait years, even decades, to find The One. For this lucky couple now in their early 70s, they were struck by Cupid’s arrow on a quiet winter evening and then tied the knot after knowing each other just two weeks.
They recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
“It’s hard to explain,” said LaNelle Holland on a recent afternoon at their cozy, cabin-style home in Whitesburg. “We just clicked.”
Adds Perry, “I just knew she was the one.”
What they didn’t know back in 1968 is how they would grow together and develop a passion for teaching and caring for children in their community. They would speak up, even march for social justice.
When the Hollands first got married, Perry worked as a plumber and LaNelle held an administrative job.
But in 1974, Perry suddenly decided to make a change: He no longer wanted to be a plumber. He wanted to become a science teacher and high school track coach.
To pay the bills for their growing family while Perry attended college, Perry and LaNelle worked as custodians at a local school, with LaNelle working a day shift, and Perry working at night. LaNelle later went to college to become a teacher, specializing in working with children with special needs.
As a child, LaNelle, who moved several times around Georgia, Florida and back to Georgia, heard racist comments by family members. She saw segregated water fountains outside department stores. And she saw an older black woman with her hands full, having to walk to the back of the bus. She knew it wasn’t right, but she also knew she was influenced by what she heard from her parents and grandparents.
“I know I must have made bigoted racist statements,” said LaNelle. “Once I realized how wrong this way of thinking was, I vowed to live my life differently and raise my family with a different set of values.”
She credited Perry for helping her see people differently.
“I was raised by my parents that you don’t judge people on skin color, or financial differences,” said Perry, who taught science and coached track at multiple high schools including Central High School in Carrollton, Mount Zion High School and Hogansville High School. “People are people. I have always believed that.”
Melissa Reese met the Hollands when she developed an affinity for running track at about 7 years old. Her dad was lukewarm about her participating in the sport, and she needed rides to and from practice. Perry Holland stepped up and gave the girl — and more than a dozen others — rides home after practice for years.
“We are talking about low-income children, and he made sure everyone who wanted to run track would have that opportunity. He would fill up his old station wagon or truck and drop kids off home, and then he would go back for another group of kids to drop off,” she said.
Reese said the Hollands also opened up their home to kids in the community — kids who needed a warm meal or maybe just someone to talk to.
Reese also remembered a trip to a public pool with Coach Holland on a sweltering hot day in 1981. Coach Holland told his team they could go to the pool after practice if they had permission from their parents.
When they got to the pool, a director of the pool at the time used a racial slur and told Holland the kids weren’t allowed in the pool.
I beg your pardon? We are going to go swimming.
And the kids went swimming.
“He is a hero to us. He was always bucking the system,” said Reese, who organized a special event with former students to honor Perry and LaNelle Holland. More than 50 people showed up.
“I wanted them to know what they meant to us,” said Reese. “I don’t think they had a clue the effect they had on people’s lives and even the little things they saw as insignificant were very important to us. They mean a lot to a lot of people. To me, they are like family.”
It was a sentiment shared by many.
“They work together to make life happen, all the while respecting and loving each other through whatever season life throws their way,” said Kim Minick, now 51 and who lives in Carrollton. She ran track in the early 1980s, and Perry was her coach.
The Hollands will tell you, their marriage, like most, has had its bumps along the way. They squabble from time to time, but make sure to talk it through and get over it quickly. They share many of the same interests — they love Jimmy Buffett (they’ve seen him in concert about 20 times), they are die-hard Georgia Tech fans, watching every football game together and as season-ticket holders, attending all of the home games, and they enjoy spending time with their family, and each other. They now have six kids, 16 grandkids and 13 great-grandchildren.
As people everywhere celebrate Valentine’s Day, we asked LaNelle and Perry for their advice for a long and happy marriage. LaNelle says it’s important to have open and honest communication with your spouse. And, she adds, let your loved one know you appreciate them, love them.
Meanwhile, Perry offers this sage advice: “If you are not a good person, I can’t give you any advice. If you are a good person, my advice is to marry a good person.”
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