Originally created 07/20/00

Former Sen. Gene Holley dies



A former senator once considered one of the most powerful men in the Georgia Senate but later convicted of bank fraud died Wednesday after suffering a heart attack at his home in Augusta.

R. Eugene Holley, 74, was pronounced dead at approximately 4:30 p.m. at Doctors Hospital, according to the Richmond County Coroner's Office.

During the 1960s and '70s, the senator led a prolific public life in the Garden City and was influential in shaping its downtown landscape.

"Gene had a real heart for Augusta," said former U.S. Rep. Doug Barnard. "He wanted Augusta to be a very progressive city."

But the dawn of the 1980s brought dark times for the former senator, who became involved in the oil business. A two-year federal investigation of now-defunct First Augusta State Bank resulted in criminal charges filed against the politician and several bankers.

Mr. Holley was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bank fraud, and was released after serving 16-months of a reduced three-year term in a minimum-security federal prison.

He spent most of the past two decades living out of the limelight, said his son, Eugene Norton Holley. His past legal problems never seemed to bother him, his son said.

"He was most proud of being a Christian," Mr. Holley said, "and a fine father and husband."

Despite his legal battles and conviction, Mr. Holley was remembered Wednesday night as a man who worked to revitalize the city.

Mr. Holley brought world-renowned architect I.M. Pei to Augusta to redesign Broad Street, creating a corridor of tree-shaded parks.

Mr. Pei also designed the glass penthouse on the top of the Lamar Building for Mr. Holley, which served as the former attorney's office. In December 1975, Mr. Holley erected a 37-by-17-foot cross atop the skyscraper, which he kept illuminated 24 hours a day.

Other civic improvements considered part of his legacy include the Chamber of Commerce Building and Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center, establishing the coliseum authority and spearheading the beer and motel tax that raised money for the project.

"He was very powerful, and he had a lot of control," said Ed Skinner, former general manager of The Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Herald. "A lot of good things happened when he was Senate majority leader."

In 1976, Mr. Holley announced he would not seek re-election to the seat he held for 12 years, and a resolution was passed making him a senator in perpetuity.

Rep. Jack Connell, D-Augusta, worked closely with Mr. Holley during his tenure, and said his friend will be remembered foremost for beautifying the city.

"He did everything for the future of downtown Augusta and the future of Richmond County," Mr. Connell said.

Mr. Holley earned his law degree at the University of Georgia and entered state politics in 1964 as a member of the Senate. He is also remembered as a decorated veteran of the Korean War for his skill as a pilot, Mr. Barnard said.

"He rose to be the majority leader as well as chairman of the banking committee," Mr. Barnard said. "He had an outstanding career as a politician."

Mr. Holley spent his twilight years quietly, reading his Bible daily and tinkering with new technology, such as computers, DVD players and big-screen televisions, his son said.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday night.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or jedwards92@hotmail.com.