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01.21.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
New Life, New Friends: Dennis Holt strums his guitar while Cynon the Dada Lion looks on.

Sidewalk Professor

Six years ago Dennis Holt was teaching linguistics in Missoula, Montana. Today he busks on the streets of Santa Cruz. The story of an academic career derailed.

By Curtis Cartier


It's a chilly night on Pacific Avenue. Strings of holiday lights cling to the trees and dry leaves crunch underfoot as the nightly cacophony of street musicians fills the cold air with a sound both joyful and desperate. Dennis Holt is there. In a khaki getup befitting a geologist, consisting of simple slacks, sandals, a jacket and a wide-brimmed hat, he's strumming an acoustic guitar and singing an old Argentine gaucho song while keeping a wary eye out for tourists who might spare an extra dollar.

With his white beard and dirty socks, the 66-year-old Holt is hard to tell apart from the many hopeful beggars who line the street--some with instruments, some simply with signs detailing their situations and demands. But Holt is different. And the distinctions come through within the first minute of speaking with him.

"The last lecture I ever gave at the University of Montana was probably the most important one I gave as well," he says, pausing from his song. "It cost me my livelihood, but I can't imagine doing anything differently. ... Do you have one more buck?"

Holt, or "Nicho" when he has a guitar in his hand, or "Dionisio" as his Hispanic friends call him, is a Ph.D.-holding linguist who has taught at universities ranging from Central Connecticut State to Quinnipiac. He's a two-term Peace Corp veteran and the longtime former secretary-treasurer of the Endangered Language Fund. He's a published poet and author, a recorded musician and a former presidential candidate who ran on an antiwar platform. He's also an unemployed pothead divorcee with a long criminal history and nasty temper.

The "last lecture" he refers to is a now-infamous rant he delivered in March of 2003. A mere three days after President Bush ordered American troops to invade Iraq, an irate Holt used his afternoon University of Montana linguistics course to denounce the war, the president and anyone who supported it in an impassioned diatribe that prompted a flurry of student complaints and sounded a death knell for Holt's career at UM.

"I was called into the dean's office and he told me I was being let go because I frightened a lot of students," he says matter-of-factly. "It was critical for me to say those things. That war is an illegal war and our government should be held accountable for it. I told them President Bush deserved to be in a jail cell next to Slobodan Milosevic. Apparently that was frightening."

News stories in Missoula, Montana's daily newspaper, the Missoulian, and UM's Montana Kaimin detail the firing; the daily cites Holt's "emotional, often rambling anti-war sentiments" and the Kaimin reports he "kind of blew up" about the war. All of the former colleagues Holt worked with in UM's linguistics department have since retired or moved to new institutions, including Thomas Storch, the dean of UM's College of Arts and Sciences and the man who fired Holt. But one UM veteran remembers Holt and the day he was fired, although she defends the school's actions.

"Dennis Holt was not fired for giving that lecture," says Jo Beck, administrative officer for the UM College of Arts and Sciences. "We have a history on this campus of being open. I don't know the exact reasons for him being let go, but I know it wasn't just because he stood up against the war."

Beck is quick to remind that Holt's adjunct professor status made him easily dismissible if he strayed too far from the course's syllabus. And that if a professor is ranting and raving about political stances, he's not teaching students about linguistics, she says.

Holt doesn't deny he used his lecture hall to speak his mind; he simply says, "Of course I did," and begins talking about the beauties of the Pech and Sumu languages and the Bolivian coffee fields, the role of consonants in the history of words, or the reasons Jack Kerouac and Kenneth Rexroth are literary geniuses.

Holt hasn't held a steady job since he was fired from UM. He's tried to work. He almost landed a job running a children's after-school program but was axed when the program coordinator asked him about his criminal record. Holt says his police history is littered with minor infractions, but the battery charge he copped not long ago for "punching a woman in the nose who tried to assault me" was the most damning for his continuing education career. With a small cabin in Felton and a portion of his son's college tuition in his pile of bills, Holt says he's able to scrape by on streetside tips and donations. Regardless, the grizzled man is far from bitter. Quick to smile and tell a story, he says he's "very happy," and the only thing he misses is having a woman in his life.

As the night wears on and the air gets colder, Holt pulls his tan collar closer to his neck and curses his luck for only having collected a few coins during the evening's busking.

"Come on, people," he mutters. "How am I supposed to live on this? Oh, well, here's another song. This one is a love song and starts like this ..."


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