Retired Chief Master Sergeant Dorothy Holmes blazed many trails during her three decades in the Air Force.
She was the first black woman to reach the Air Force’s highest enlisted rank. She was the first woman to retire with 30 years of continuous service in the Air Force. And she was the first female chief master sergeant to be assigned to the Air Force Academy.
But a friend, retired Army Master Sgt. George Smith, remembers her as a wonderful person who was fun to be around — but one with little patience for nonsense, who could grab people’s attention with her commanding voice.
“She would tell it like it is, and whether you would like to hear it or not, she would tell it,” Smith said in an interview Friday. “She had a lot on the ball.”
Smith, who worked with “Dottie” Holmes at The Retired Enlisted Association in the 1980s, remembered how they would visit lawmakers on Capitol Hill to urge them to introduce or vote for pieces of legislation that would help seniors and veterans. And, he said laughing, if one of those lawmakers seemed dismissive of their concerns, Holmes would put him in his place.
“Sometimes, that congressman would say, ‘Well, you know, that thing is not important,'” Smith said. “And she would hop on something like that — ‘What do you mean it’s not important?’ And you’d find that congressman kind of crawfishing a little bit: ‘Well, er, um, I didn’t mean it that way, Ms. Holmes.’ Later, when we’d get back together, we would laugh about it, how it appeared that she was just a little kind lady, but when her time comes to talk, she wouldn’t hesitate."
Holmes passed away on Feb. 17 at the age of 91, and a memorial service will be held for her Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
She was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 1, 1927, and joined the Air Force in May 1949, according to her obituary. She began her career in Texas, but spent time in places such as Germany, Japan, Thailand, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and South Dakota over the next three decades.
She played a crucial role in integrating female cadets into the previously all-male Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs.
In 1976, Brig. Gen. Stanley Beck, who was then the academy’s commandant of cadets, personally asked for Holmes to come help with the integration.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., paid tribute to Holmes on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2014, and said she “serve[d] as a role model and mentor for the first class of female cadets.”
Holmes’ obituary said she became deputy assistant to the superintendent for plans, programs and policies and “strove to make her job one that helped all cadets.”
Holmes was key in helping establish female cadets there, and setting up equal opportunity programs at the academy, her obituary states. She also was a guest lecturer many times in classes there, in addition to her administrative, counseling and mentoring duties.
“Through her courageous service, Chief Holmes charted the path for future generations of women to serve in the military,” Perlmutter said in 2014.
When Holmes retired after almost three years at the academy, former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm issued an executive order declaring May 31, 1979, as Chief Master Sergeant Dorothy W. Holmes Day. She continued to volunteer at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, not far from the academy, in retirement.
She also served as president of the Women in the Air Force Association for 25 years, according to her obituary. From 1948 to 1976, Women in the Air Force pushed to expand the opportunities for women in the service. In 2016, Holmes attended a reunion of nearly 70 members of the Women in the Air Force program at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
And she served two terms as national president of The Retired Enlisted Association.
Holmes treasured her time in the Air Force, Smith said, and often looked back fondly on those days. If anybody said anything bad about her beloved service, she’d challenge them immediately, he added.
She received the Legion of Merit for her work at the academy, and her other decorations included the Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
The Air Force in 2009 posted online a photo of Holmes visiting Peterson at a retiree recognition reception. She told the airmen at Peterson during that visit that she hadn’t intended to make an entire career out of the Air Force when she joined, but she stayed because she loved her assignments and her work.
Holmes’ memorial service, with military honors, will be held Saturday at Angelus Chapel Funeral Directors in Colorado Springs.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.