The VVA Veteran® Online

November/December 2014

Peter Holt: Repaying a Debt

Courtesy San Antonio SpursA Vietnam veteran I know says the war saved his life. In the mid-sixties he was a bar-brawling teenager headed for a life of crime when a judge in Michigan gave him the choice of submitting to the draft or going to jail. He chose the draft and wound up with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam, where he underwent a hellacious tour of duty. He grew up quickly under those life-or-death circumstances. When he came home, my friend started college and then went on to a hugely successful professional career.

That script—a judge giving a wayward teenager the choice between jail time and the military—played out all over the country during the Vietnam War. In the summer of 1966 it happened to a seventeen-year-old from a prominent family in Corpus Christi, Texas. Arrested after the cops picked him up drunk in a stolen car, Peter Holt—the great-grandson of Benjamin Holt, who founded the Caterpillar tractor company in the 1880s—went for option number two.

“I never even called a lawyer or the family,” Holt told a newspaper reporter. “I just figured anything was better than jail.”

When he told his parents, Holt said, “I think my mother literally fainted. And my father falls in his chair and goes, ‘What? Son, you’re going to Vietnam.’ I said, ‘What’s Vietnam?’ ”

Peter Holt soon found out. Beginning in September of 1967 he put in an action-filled tour of duty as a rifleman with Company A, 2nd of the 22nd in the 25th Infantry Division. “No one knew he was the son of a millionaire,” his commanding officer, Alan Wetzel, said in 2003. “He was just this lanky Texan with a baby face and a silly grin, a nineteen-year-old, sharp-talking kid with a hard mouth. But Peter was a good soldier, a real good soldier.”

He was a good soldier who came home from Vietnam in 1968 with a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart. Holt received the latter after a bullet grazed the base of his neck during an intense firefight with the NVA in which Holt survived only after burrowing beneath the dead bodies of two fellow soldiers.

Holt had a rough homecoming, including a long, tough battle with alcoholism. But he turned his life around in the early 1980s when he began working for his great grandfather’s company, taking over a struggling Caterpillar dealership in San Antonio. Within five years Holt turned that business around, instituting something he called “Holt Values-Based Leadership,” which emphasized customer service.

An NBA San Antonio Spurs season-ticket holder since 1988, Holt and his wife Julianna were looking for a local investment in the mid-1990s. In 1996 Holt bought the team and became its principal owner, chairman, and CEO. Within three years the organization became one of the most successful professional sports franchises in the nation. Since he bought the team, the Spurs have reached the NBA finals six times, winning championships in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. During the last seventeen seasons the team has had a winning percentage of .703, the best of any NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB team.

Illustration: Travis KingIn addition to steering the Spurs to unparalleled success, Holt has been involved in a wide variety of community and public service endeavors. Among other things, he headed the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission for four years. He also served as chair of the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County and on the boards of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation and the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.

Holt’s community service work also includes efforts to help his fellow veterans. He has participated in many endeavors for wounded veterans of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including hosting a hugely successful fund-raising event at the Spurs’ AT&T Center in 2007. In 2009 Holt announced that he would donate $1 million for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Education Center that will be built on the Mall near The Wall in Washington, D.C.

“We want to create an education center that puts faces on that Wall, but also helps people understand what the military has done for the United States,” Holt said in 2011. “I was in a lot of battles, and there are fifty-two names up on that Wall of people I served with. I always felt that I was never able to repay those people.”

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