Oxford High graduates celebrate bittersweet graduation: 'We have held each other up'

Tiny force of nature a big presence at council meetings

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Always in a front-row seat and dressed to the nines, the late Mother Ruedell Holmes had a passion for the Lord — and Detroit — that made her a fixture at City Council meetings.

Mother Ruedell Holmes was always in a front-row seat and dressed to the nines for council.

While she had no official title or duties, this tiny force of nature in a fancy hat — even in her 90s — could command the room, bringing calm to frenzied meetings with her heartfelt prayers for the financially troubled city and its leaders.

As often-bickering council members fell silent, citizen Holmes would take to the podium, close her eyes and call upon God to provide the city's legislators with "fresh courage" as they tackled controversy and fiscal challenges.

"God, we need you. Lord, look on our council, give them fresh courage," Holmes pleaded during a 2012 meeting. "Lord, things are not going good and Jesus, we need you. Please make a way for Detroit."

Although her rare character and kindness touched so many, those who knew her say the February death of the city elder came and went with little regard.

Disturbed by the lack of a tribute, Councilman James Tate's office is organizing a memorial that he says will pay homage to Holmes, a northwest Detroit resident who inspired and schooled leaders on the city's evolution. A specific date has not yet been set.

"There was no proper send off for her," Tate said. "This is our opportunity to give back to her just a little bit of what she gave to us. She deserves it, and more."

Tate first encountered Holmes as a freshman council member in 2010. She was a resident who epitomized a generation that came to the city from the south to begin a middle-class life. Holmes spent about eight decades in Detroit, seeing it through the civil rights era, population decline, a corruption scandal and state takeover.

Through it all, she held on to her love for the city and supported its leaders. She also coined the phrase "fresh courage," a saying that evolved into a mantra among council members, Tate said.

"She was able to provide that sense of hope for a lot of us who were decades younger than her," he said. "When she spoke, it resonated."

Holmes shared a bit about her life in a video produced in 2012 by the city of Detroit's public-access Channel 10. She was born in Hannibal, Missouri, and lost her mother at age 2. She moved to Detroit to stay with a grandmother who died when Holmes was just 15.

After the death of her sole relative, Holmes was placed into an orphanage. She fled and was taken in by a woman she met on the street.

"She treated me like her own, took me everywhere," Holmes recalled of her caregiver in the video segment. "... she gave me a good life."

The Northern High School graduate attended cosmetology school by day and worked automotive factory jobs at night until obtaining her cosmetology license.

She worked as a beautician in a shop set up inside her northwest Detroit home. Even in her 80s, she still had a hairdresser's sink in her house and customers, her friends say.

Public records listed Holmes as 91 years old at the time of her death. But she often argued there was a record mix-up and she truly had been a decade older, putting her final age at 101.

Holmes treasured visits to Belle Isle, a place where she and her husband, Edward, a postal worker, would visit on hot summer nights to sleep on cots underneath the stars.

After nearly 50 years of marriage, Holmes' husband died in 1994.

"He was so good to me," she recalled in the Channel 10 video. "But I lost him. God called him home."

In the decades that followed, Jake Kitchings, a neighbor who'd befriended the couple, helped Holmes with chores, drove her to appointments and prepared her meals.

Kitchings, a retired General Motors worker, says the task was a way of making good on a promise he'd made years earlier to Holmes' husband to always look out for her.

"She didn't have nobody," he said. "So I took it upon myself to do something for her."

An ornate urn contains the ashes of Mother Ruedell Holmes at a neighbor’s house.

Kitchings says Holmes always kept up on current events and had a fascination with government and politics.

The walls inside her Minock Park home were covered with collages of Detroit council members and other politicians she admired, including Coleman A. Young and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The home also featured an impressive display honoring President Barack Obama, said Debra Pospiech, an assistant to Carol O'Cleireacain, the city's deputy mayor for economic policy, planning and strategy.

"She was somebody who cared about others and the city," said Pospiech, who met Holmes in 2007 while working as a policy chief for former councilwoman Sheila Cockrel. "She really did put all of that first."

Holmes volunteered with political campaigns in Lansing and Detroit, including the 1976 City Council campaign of Kenneth V. Cockrel Sr.

In the 2012 video, Holmes showed off some of her news clippings. She especially lauded Obama, the nation's first black president.

"I'm still proud of him. He's smart," Holmes said of Obama, adding she hoped he would secure a second term. "I want him to win. I'm going to pray that he'll win."

Jake Kitchings' wife, Kathleen, says Holmes was a one-of-a-kind character who never wavered in her dedication to the city and kept her television glued to the public access channel. The council, she said, was Holmes' world.

"She lived for that Tuesday," Kathleen Kitchings said. "She wouldn't miss it for nothing."

The Kitchingses, who had authority over Holmes' affairs, have kept Holmes' ashes, which are resting in an elaborate urn on a ledge next to the bay window of their front room.

"She always wanted to be with us. So I said, 'That's where she should be.' We were a family," Kathleen Kitchings said.

Holmes had been in declining health over the last several years. Last year, she fell inside her home and broke a hip. Later, she fell a second time in the nursing home where she'd been recuperating. She passed away several months later.

"It really took a toll on me by her passing," Jake Kitchings said. "It's an adjustment that you've got to get used to, but I miss her."

Joanna Darby, 26, a producer for the city's media services department, interviewed Holmes and edited the public television segment.

She watched Holmes speak at council meetings every week for more than a year. For Holmes, the two-minute public comment limit rarely applied and she often ran over to five or seven minutes, Darby recalled.

"I don't know if it was her age or the power she had when she spoke, people just wanted to listen," said Darby, who was first introduced to Holmes as a teenager. "She brought this aura to the council table that a lot of other people weren't able to do."

In her final days, a framed photograph of Holmes surrounded by a prior council was at her bedside. The council had honored her with a testimonial resolution in 2010 for her dedication, inspirational prayers and strength.

"Everyone knew that was her love: the council and city politics," Pospiech said. "It was just the highlight of her life."

During one of her final visits to a council meeting, Holmes in May 2013 told The Detroit News that she'd been "sick for a while," but said "I wanted to try today.'"

"We all got to try to do the right thing, to try to make it in," she said.