UNMC alumna shares passion for nursing and giving back
Sharon Holyoke remembers that it was December 1966.
The daughter of public school teachers, Sharon was raised in a small community in America’s heartland, taught at an early age to live below her means. The best kind of teaching, they say, is the kind that sticks. So Sharon took that lesson everywhere she went.
Sharon remembers that she had recently graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing and that her monthly paycheck was around $600.
Even though her husband, Edward Holyoke Jr. — Ted — was in his first year of medical school at the time, Sharon remembers pulling out her checkbook and sending $100 to the University of Nebraska Foundation, to support the institution that had given her an education. It felt like an awful lot of money.
“Ted and I believed it was important to be good with money,” she said. “But it was just as important to do good with money.”
Sharon hasn’t shaken the feeling more than a half-century later.
“The more we gave,” she recalled, “the more satisfaction we received.”
The Holyoke legacy is a long one that can be traced back to before the Revolutionary War.
In the 18th century, Edward Holyoke served as president for more than three decades of what was then Harvard College, teaching the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock and John Adams.
Today, the surname travels far — especially in Nebraska medical circles. Edward Holyoke, M.D., Sharon’s father-in-law, was an instructor at UNMC for more than 50 years. There’s a giving society that carries his name in the College of Medicine. Ted also graduated from the UNMC college.
In terms of potential career paths, Sharon’s opportunities were slim.
“Growing up, there weren’t a lot of options for women,” Sharon said.
But Sharon knew that she wanted to combine nursing and teaching, and with her father’s encouragement, she was steadfast as she pursued both.
Later, Sharon attended graduate school at the University of Colorado, where she earned her master’s degree while her husband was in his residency. The two returned to Nebraska, put down roots in Ogallala and raised two daughters, Mary Virginia and Ann Christin; a third daughter, Megan Lee, died in infancy. They later returned to Omaha, and Sharon taught at UNMC for more than 30 years, guiding more than 2,000 students through the College of Nursing. Ted mentored young physicians in the UNMC rural residency program.
But in August 1993, the Holyoke family was dealt a painful, incalculable blow when Mary Virginia, the Holyokes’ oldest daughter, died due to a heart condition. Ginny was 23 years old and pursuing a law degree. She had recently gotten married and moved to Omaha.
“It hurt. And it made us realize that we aren’t going to live forever,” Sharon said. “But it caused us to take a new look at giving. Ted liked to say that, ‘You don’t see a U-Haul behind a hearse.’”
A scholarship was created in Ginny’s honor at Hastings College, where she had been valedictorian and homecoming queen.
There are multiple scholarships carrying the Holyoke name at UNMC, including two with Sharon’s name: one for nursing students and the other for general scholarships.
“Our education gave us the tools to earn a living,” Sharon said. “We always wanted to give back to the foundation to thank them.”
Ted died in 2015 after a nearly decadelong battle with gastrointestinal cancer.
Sharon meets with the recipients of her scholarships and is quick to encourage them to give back. She’s not shy to inquire if some are dating. One told her that she didn’t have time for dating, which sent Sharon into laughter.
“I love to connect with students — they’re just delightful,” she said. “They’re just so refreshing and so impressive.”
Caitlin Jordan, a recipient of the Sharon Bonham Holyoke Nursing Scholarship, had the opportunity to meet Sharon last year.
“She gave us great words of wisdom regarding life and nursing,” said Caitlin. “She’s a wonderful lady and is extremely passionate about nursing as a profession.”
In her will, Sharon has committed to funding two scholarships — one in her name and one in Ted’s.
When asked what her ultimate philanthropic hope is, Sharon finds the words with ease.
“We love what we did,” she said. “And we just hope we leave the world a better place than we started.”
“We love what we did,” Sharon Holyoke said. “And we just hope we leave the world a better place than we started.”