Dave Holmberg, who died Monday, is being remembered as a giant of Abbotsford who left a lasting impact on the city’s people, politics and institutions.
Holmberg, whose philanthropic work was key to the construction of Abbotsford’s first free-standing adult hospice, and who literally helped shape the Discovery Trail and Ledgeview Golf Course, passed away early Monday morning.
He was 75, and died surrounded by family at Abbotsford Regional Hospital after a five-year battle with cancer.
“There’s a big hole in our community this morning,” said Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong, who called Holmberg “part John Wayne, part Johnny Cash, with just a dash of Winston Churchill.”
Born in a tiny southern Saskatchewan town, Holmberg grew up in Victoria and got his start in business in Calgary before moving to the Fraser Valley in 1975 to start a new construction equipment business – Fraser Valley Loader Sales, later to become Bobcat Country Sales.
As he grew his business over the next four years with the help of wife Lee and sons David Jr. and Phillip, Holmberg would become a key figure in Abbotsford’s social, charitable and political circles.
And when he retired from business in 2011, following the death of David Jr. from cancer, Holmberg’s stature only grew as he threw his considerable capital — both financial and otherwise — into the construction of what would become the city’s first standalone hospice care facility. That facility was later named Holmberg House, in honour of David Jr.
The Holmbergs donated more than $1 million of their own money toward the effort, and Dave was also front and centre at most fundraising events – not to take credit, but to solicit more money from the community, often pledging to match any other contributions.
“I honestly don’t believe we would have Holmberg House without Dave Holmberg,” said Abbotsford Hospice Society chair David Turchen. “There were times when we needed someone to raise our flag and that was Dave.”
Several years earlier, Holmberg had taken a similar leading role in the construction of the Discovery Trail across Abbotsford. He not only helped co-ordinate the initial plan for the project, but when the time came to begin work, it was Holmberg, his employees and machines that helped move the earth to create the link through the city.
Holmberg showed similar initiative when it came to his beloved Ledgeview Golf Course, where he served 10 years as president and in other roles. Phil Dodd, the current president, says he remembers Holmberg sitting in his equipment and personally shaping the course.
“He planted many of the trees that are still standing,” Dodd said. “We’re going to sadly miss him.”
Holmberg contributed to dozens of other organizations.
Prior to Monday’s council meeting, Mayor Henry Braun paid tribute to Holmberg, noting that he had been recognized with some of the highest honours bestowed upon local citizens, including the Order of Abbotsford and last spring the province’s new Medal of Good Citizenship. He was twice awarded with both the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and Rotary’s Paul Harris Fellowship.
Holmberg was involved with a range of other groups, including Salvation Army, Abbotsford Community Services, Valley Royals Track and Field, Big Brothers and Sisters of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford Airforce Football, and the Children’s Miracle Network. He chaired the Abbotsford Airport Authority, was vice-president of the Abbotsford Airshow and sat on the boards of Agrifair, the Chamber of Commerce and the Abbotsford Economic Development Board. He was also instrumental in the creation of Crime Stoppers, and the Restorative Justice and Advocacy Association, and chaired the Matsqui Citizens Advisory Group for Correctional Service Canada.
Holmberg also left a huge mark on local and provincial politics. He managed three campaigns for Matsqui Mayor Dave Kandal, and jumped into the provincial ring in 1994 when BC Liberal newcomer Mike de Jong squared off with the leader of the Social Credit party, Grace McCarthy, in a byelection. The Socreds had represented the Matsqui riding for four decades, but were on the back foot and desperate to retain their foothold.
With Kandal’s support, Holmberg threw his political acumen behind de Jong, who squeaked out a razor-thin 42-vote victory. The loss was devastating for the Socreds, which would never win another seat in B.C.
Marion Keys, who worked on several campaigns with Holmberg, said he was a forceful and driving political strategist.
“I loved Dave dearly, and he scared me half to death when I first met him,” she said. “I was pretty green and he had this booming voice … What I saw right away is he really cared and he knew what he was doing.”
Holmberg would tell Keys: “I’m not sure if I could get elected myself, but I’m sure I can get other people elected.”
De Jong knew of Holmberg long before the pair came to work together on the 1994 campaign and three more following that victory.
“You couldn’t really live here without knowing of Dave and about Dave because he had that kind of presence in our community,” he said. “I’d say [his] passion for politics was a byproduct of his passion for community, province and country.”
But while Holmberg wasn’t afraid to raise his voice, whether it be in a political campaign or as an auctioneer at a fundraiser, de Jong saw another side of him.
He remembers watching Holmberg hear about a young, disabled person who was unable to get a job.
“I watched him cry and he said, ‘That can’t happen’ and that he was going to do something about it. And he did. And there are so many individual stories like that of lives that he and his family touched.”
Holmberg is survived by wife Lee, son Phil, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Phil said his father was “a great role model” who “was always teaching you something.” From the importance of keeping customers and employees happy in business, to the right way to ask a political candidate a probing question, Phil said he learned much from his father.
“He had a great life and I’m very proud to be his son.”
A celebration of life is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 6, at 11 a.m. at Tradex.