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.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Charlotte Perry immediately volunteered to deliver meals to older people in California, where she has resided for much of her adult life. Soon after signing up, the North Platte, Nebraska, native got a notice asking if she would like to have meals delivered to her instead.
“I got to thinking, well, maybe I’m the one that’s supposed to be getting the meals, and I shouldn’t be carrying these trays up to all these old people, since I’m one of them,” Charlotte said, as her laughter echoed through the video call.
Despite opting out of delivering meals, Charlotte still found herself helping in her own way — writing uplifting notes to low-income older adults through the Salvation Army’s meal delivery program.
“I think it’s important to give back no matter what the situation is. It makes you feel good, too,” she said.
Charlotte has found great joy in helping others. She has volunteered with more than 20 organizations since she retired in 2003 as a children’s librarian in Chula Vista, California. She also began supporting the University of Nebraska, which, she said, will always be in her heart.
Charlotte established the Charlotte Walter Perry Excellence in Education Fund in 2007. She spent two of her undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, then called Kearney State College, and completed her degree in elementary education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1964. Because of her fruitful experiences at both universities, her gift benefits the College of Education and Human Sciences at UNL and the College of Education at UNK.
“I think education is very important, and all of these young people need to have a career,” Charlotte said. “That’s our future. The young people become educated and good citizens.”
After graduating from UNL, Charlotte received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Denver and worked as a junior high librarian for two years. She then packed her suitcase and headed to Germany, where she worked as a librarian on a military base for the Army Special Services. After a couple years of traveling, she settled down in San Diego, California, became a librarian at a public library and then landed a job as a children’s librarian for the Chula Vista Elementary School District.
Charlotte credits her Midwestern upbringing for her great work ethic, stating that, in the 1950s, one had to be hardworking to succeed. She said she wants to be known as someone who was patriotic, was a good American and someone who did her part in the community.
“People sometimes talk about what is between the dashes in your obituary,” Charlotte said. “I would say that I’ve lived well. I’ve had fun. I’ve helped others and have been a good friend to a lot of people. So I guess that would be my legacy — that I have been a good person.”