PERSONALITIES: A pandemic walk reignites town historian's fascination with the past

Nov. 5—COVENTRY — John Holmy has a ravenous love of history and when he discovered the history of Coventry almost three years ago, it consumed him so much that it caught the attention of town officials, inviting him to apply to be the new town historian, a position he's held for two years.

A "history nerd"

Originally from Andover, Massachusetts, Holmy said he loved history from the beginning, calling himself a "history nerd" while going to school at Andover High School.

"My dad, he was an executive with Raytheon," Holmy said.

Because of his father's job, he said, they spent two years in the South Pacific on a military base in the Marshall Islands, while his father assisted in missile testing.


Who he is:: Coventry town historian.

Background:: Originally from Andover, Massachusetts. Has a degree in history from UMass Amherst.

Fun fact:: Lived on a military base in the Marshall Islands, in the South Pacific, where his father worked in missile testing.

Quote: "There's more than just Nathan Hale. There are tons of really good stories."

"There was lots to do," he said. "We would go out on the reef. We'd collect shells and things. It was fun as a little kid. It was kind of insular. It probably got me into history too. It had been the site of a World War II battle. This was in the early '70s, you could still find casings and ammunition and stuff."

Upon graduation from high school, Holmy went to Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, majoring in international relations and economics.

"I had fun at Tufts because I was off the leash," he said. "I ended up taking some time off and finishing my degree at UMass-Amherst in history."

Holmy said he had planned to attend the University of Connecticut for grad school to become a history professor, but got a job at Automatic Data Processing, while living in Willimantic.

"I'd only been there for a couple of months," he said. "I was there as a debt collector. I got a $2 an hour raise. To me that was big, big money and I stayed. I was there for about 35 years. I retired just last year."

After a couple of years, he moved to Mansfield and about 10 years ago, moved to Coventry.

Though he made a good living, he said that he feels like he's wasted a lot of time for not pursuing history more.

"When I say I sold out and became a corporate drone, it sounds flippant, but it's how I feel," he said. "I feel in a way I've wasted a lot of time. I made a good living. I was able to put my son through school."

Little memorials caught his eye

What motivated him to start looking into local history, he said, was the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I stopped going to the gym and I started walking around," he said. "There are things that you see when you walk that you don't see from your car. I started noticing these little memorials around."

He said he got in touch with local historian Bill Jobbagy, who became his mentor.

"I started reading his books and they're almost like tour guides," Holmy said. "The things to go out and find. There's all these little stone memorials around town that were all put up mostly by this fellow named George Dudley Seymour, who was an attorney from New Haven. Around 1913, he bought the Hale Homestead and what would become the Nathan Hale Forest. He had this hero worship for Nathan Hale."

Though Nathan Hale may be the most famous name to come out of Coventry, Holmy said there is a lot more to the town's history than the Revolutionary spy.

Beyond Nathan Hale

"I hope people realize that there's more than just Nathan Hale," he said. "There are tons of really good stories. There are stories, there are people, how they lived in the past and there are all these places in town that you can go and see things like these little memorials or the cemeteries or the toy factory, or old mill sites.

"Maybe one of the most famous people that people have never heard of from Coventry was a Methodist minister named Lorenzo Dow," he said, "who grew up here in Coventry, and in the early 1800s, he may have been the most famous person in America. He was one of the most widely traveled people in America. He was an itinerant preacher. He traveled all over the place and he was an eccentric.

"Maybe the most important (person) to come out of Coventry, was a fellow named Daniel Halliday, who invented a revolutionary windmill," he said. "It adjusted to the wind and it was used out West in railroad construction."

Holmy has dozens of other stories similar to these, and says he wishes local history was taught more in schools.

"There was no class on local history," he said. "There was nothing on how to become a local historian. As I started seeing all these things around town and realizing there's all this local stuff going on, it was like a new toy for me. It was like a new thing. I never really thought about it before."

Holmy shares tidbits on Coventry history on his Facebook page and on other local Facebook groups and pages.

For coverage of local restaurants, cultural events, music, and an extensive range of Connecticut theater reviews, follow Tim Leininger on Twitter: @Tim_E_Leininger, Facebook: Tim Leininger's Journal Inquirer News page, and Instagram: @One_Mans_Opinion77.