It was life-changing.
“He fell in love with the people and the ancient culture,” said his son Henry “Hank” Holley. “The Chinese were overjoyed to see the Americans. And being a young boy from a small town in Texas, this was a whole other world.”
Holley’s affinity for the Far East proved both enduring and useful.
He left the Marines but rejoined after a college stint didn’t pan out. That was when he met and married his wife Bettie in the late 1940s. She had had balked at going on a blind date with Holly until her mother reminded her that she had given her word to a friend that she would go through with it.
When the Korean War broke out, Holley was deployed to Okinawa. It marked another course change, as a brash young Marine more interested in earthly pursuits began his evolution into a revered example of faith.
Family members said he immersed himself in the pocket New Testament his mother had sent him, and he took a leadership role with the Navigators, a Bible study and discipleship group.
“When he came back, he said to my mom ‘We’re going to church.’ That’s what started it off,” said daughter Debbie Holley.
A duty station at Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C., around 1960 brought him back in touch with a Navigators friend who convinced him to volunteer, helping organize Graham’s National Capitol crusade. The evangelist was impressed by Holley’s work and offered him a job.
The timing wasn’t right and he said no, but his retirement as a master sergeant in 1967 saw a seamless transition into a new role with Graham.
“The day he retired his general literally took his hand during the ceremony and then put it in the hand of the vice president of the (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) Walter Smyth,” said Tom Phillips, a current vice president.
Holley worked tirelessly, eventually being put in charge of planning Graham’s 1973 crusade in Seoul, South Korea. Drawing on his knowledge of Asia and working alongside his wife, he orchestrated an event that drew 1.1 million on its final day, which is said to be Graham’s largest live audience ever. Yeoman work on other crusades followed, the bulk of them in Asia.
Graham and Holley became fast friends as part of a nearly five-decade association. A 2018 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article said Holley’s East Cobb home was museum-like and contained dozens of photos of the two men together.
Officials said Graham recounted a conversation in his autobiography “Just as I Am.” Around 1990, Holley told Graham “we’ve been practically everywhere else,” and that he’d been praying for years to bring the evangelist’s message to communist and officially atheistic North Korea.
“He said he believed we could find an opening,” remembered Graham in the book.
Prying open that door took more than a year of painstaking groundwork with the federal State Department, the United Nations and North Korea. Permission granted, Graham, Holley and the team visited in 1992.
“Henry was great at getting in to see people, “said Knowles, who said part of the trip featured a session with Kim Il-Sung, during which they talked about “our kids and grandchildren and life in general.” The group also brought food and medical supplies, and Graham preached.
But friends and family say many of Holley’s most significant conversations were not with world leaders.
“He’d go to church and see a lone, young, single Marine and invite him home for dinner,” said Hank Holley. “He mentored young men all his life.”
And in the years before his 2014 retirement, the evangelistic association’s Asian director would bring evangelism workers, business and government leaders to meet and learn from Holley, Phillips said.
Hank Holley said the tone and accomplishments of his father’s life came from his military service.
“He was a Marine, and if you put your mind to something in the Marines, you see it through.”
He’s survived by three children, more than a half-dozen grand-, great-grand and great-great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews. A private graveside service was held. A public memorial is planned later.