In a memorial that moved them in turns to quiet tears and loud laughter, family, friends and community members gathered in the hundreds to pay an emotional and festive tribute to David Holtzman, who was remembered for his contagious love of life and his ability to bring people together.
Holtzman, 53, died of a heart attack on April 9 while on vacation in Palm Springs with his partner, Peter Regier.
“David hated going to memorials that dragged on and on, so we promised him if and when we ever had to do a memorial service for him, we’d keep it short and people would have a good time and party,” said long-time friend Mark Wirtz. “That’s what we want to make sure people do — and reconnect.”
Holtzman’s ability to connect was abundantly apparent through a photographic collage on exhibit during the memorial, held at the Roundhouse Community Centre June 20. To genre-crossing music like “Hallelujah,” “Cruisin,’” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “You’re the Top,” the gathering was treated to a slideshow version of Holtzman’s very full and fun-filled life.
And just when the crowd thought it had exhausted its tears and laughter, The Village People’s “YMCA” came booming through the speakers, bringing them to their feet for the memorial’s grand finale.
“You can’t really describe it. It’s amazing to see so many people come together to celebrate David and give everybody an opportunity to see how much the man accomplished in his lifetime,” said Barb Snelgrove. “The only sad part of it is how much more can he have done if he was still with us.”
“You can’t put a name on what and who David Holtzman is. All you can do is see at this event how many people he touched, and know that he made a big difference,” she added.
Holtzman worked as executive director of A Loving Spoonful from 1996 to 2001. He also directed Leadership Vancouver from 2001 to 2006 and, in the last 25 years, worked in Europe, Asia and around North America with the Department of External Affairs, Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion tour, World University Service of Canada and the Canadian Council on Learning.
Snelgrove said she’ll miss working alongside Holtzman. He always sat across from her on the Positive Living BC advisory panel, she said, “always doing just little laughs, and the winks, and the smiles.”
It was good to know he was there, she said, “knowing that if you need to make that phone call, you knew with David that he was that phone call away.”
Out on Screen’s executive director, Drew Dennis, remembered Holtzman as an “incredible community leader, articulate, persistent, passionate — or you might say, excitable.”
“Looking out in the room, I know many of you knew David for far longer than I did, but I think that’s the thing about David: it didn’t matter how long you knew him, he touched all of us.”
“I find myself still repeating some of his quotes,” Dennis continued.
For Dennis, the quote that best sums up Holtzman’s professional life, community experience and activism is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“David always went together,” Dennis said.
Out on Screen felt fortunate to have Holtzman “choose to play” with them in the last couple of years, Dennis added. “He was particularly inspired by our Out in Schools program. He saw the connection between the educational piece in schools and the gaybashing that unfortunately still happens on our streets.”
Holtzman’s nephew Mike Hamata remembered his uncle teaching him the importance of tolerance and compassion.
Hamata recalled how he reacted when his uncle pulled him aside at a birthday party to tell him he was gay.
“I felt a little bit like Captain Renault of Rick’s Place in the film Casablanca. ‘I’m shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on in here,’ Hamata said, channelling the captain’s character and voice to the crowd’s great amusement and applause.
“First, like Captain Renault, this is something we already knew,” Hamata explained. “Second, and most importantly, it seemed like such a natural thing to us when we were kids, because we learned from David early on the importance of bringing everyone into a really, really big tent.
“You could have a better party that way.”
Out on Screen’s Leslie Thompson, a friend of Holtzman’s for 27 years, echoed the ease with which Holtzman brought people together. “He was always like, ‘You have to meet so and so, because they are so great at this,’ or ‘You would love this person because . . .’ He had this incredible memory for people. I remember saying to him one day, ‘You should really go on to Facebook. I think you’d do quite well there. And he did.”
She recalled attending a party with an old boyfriend when Holtzman introduced her to his niece, saying, “This is Leslie. Leslie is a lesbian.”
“Only David could bring me this moment, introducing me to his niece as ‘This is what a lesbian looks like,’” Thompson said with a hearty laugh.
“You all have those stories about David, because you all lived to that full extent with him if you knew him at all,” said Frank Morgan, who also spoke at the memorial. “We need to tell those stories no matter how simple they are.”
If anyone deserves to have their stories told so they become part of the lore and legend in our communities, it’s David Holtzman, Morgan added. “I encourage you to tell those stories, and keep telling them.”