PORTSMOUTH-Former Portsmouth Mayor James W. Holley III died Friday at the age of 85. His death comes after he suffered an apparent stroke nearly two weeks ago.
'It blindsided me. It really did,' said Sheriff Bill Watson who knew Holley for about 30 years.
Watson was at the fundraising event where the former mayor seemed to have the stroke.
'He was 'Mr. Portsmouth.' I mean, he always talked about the 'Portsmouth Family,'' Watson told 13News. 'He's one of the honest politicians that we had, and the man kept his word, and when he said, 'Portsmouth Family,' he meant 'Portsmouth Family.' It was no racial barrier there. I mean, Jim loved everybody. Everybody loved him back. He was just a good guy.'
Holley, a Portsmouth native, served five terms as mayor, although twice he was recalled. The first time was in 1987. In 2010, voters recalled him following claims by his aide that he had her take care of his personal business on City time and that he was abusive towards her.
Holley, who was a civil rights activist, became the Portsmouth's first black city council member and its first black mayor.
'He was one of the people that, actually, helped me to understand about politics and government. Then, I got to serve with him which made me real proud to be beside him,' Vice Mayor Charles Whitehurst, Sr. said, describing his long-time friend as an 'icon.'
'Did some wonderful things from, actually, challenging the City from things that were ugly, to making the City a beautiful place, leaving a legacy that we all remember,' noted Whitehurst.
'Back when times were different than they are now, Jim Holley helped bring Portsmouth up to what it is now to desegregate and make us one family, and I think things are a lot better because of Jim Holley,' Watson said. 'I mean, we lost our greatest ambassador to Portsmouth. We really have.'
According to his biography, Holley wasa 1944 graduate of I.C. Norcom High School and then served in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the war, he attended West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1949. From there, he went to dental school at the Howard University College of Dentistry, graduating in 1955. He also received an honorary law degree from West Virginia State.
Holley battled for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s and played an integral role in the desegregation of Portsmouth, winning court battles which allowed for the equal use of the city's libraries, hospitals, restaurants and golf courses. During that time, Holley entertained Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his home on several occasions.
Holley served the City of Portsmouth on Council beginning in 1968.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, and their 3 children.