By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—Fifteen years after he took the helm of Epworth Children’s Home, the Rev. John Holler is stepping into retirement—but not without some significant honors.
At his retirement celebration June 24, Holler was surprised with not only a packed crowd of friends, family and Epworth supporters cheering him on toward this new chapter in his life, but also the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian in this state: the Order of the Palmetto.
Gov. Henry McMaster was on hand to present the Order of the Palmetto to Holler in recognition of his dedicated service to children and the community.
McMaster, who has known Holler for many years as a fraternity brother, said Holler “always stood out and had a big heart” even before he went into the ministry. But between his many years in pastoral ministry, plus the last 15 as a fierce and passionate advocate for children and families through Epworth, Holler has earned his spot among those who make South Carolina—and the world—a better place.
“He’s made an enormous difference,” McMaster said just before he presented the award to Holler.
The Order of the Palmetto is presented in recognition of a lifetime of extraordinary achievement, service and contributions on a national or statewide scale.
The award was one of a number of ways Epworth honored Holler as they gathered on the lawn at their Trenholm Road campus for a fitting sendoff.
The Rev. Tim Rogers, superintendent of the Marion District of The United Methodist Church, was on hand to bring greetings and warm wishes on behalf of Bishop L. Jonathan Holston and the rest of the Bishop’s Cabinet and the annual conference as a whole.
Howard Duvall, of the Columbia City Council, presented Holler with a plaque on behalf of the mayor and stated that June 24, 2021 was officially “John Holler Day.”
The Rev. Smoke Kanipe spoke on behalf of the Epworth board, praising Holler’s heart for children and announcing their way to honor him: the creation of the John E. Holler Jr. Endowment Fund to bear Holler’s name in perpetuity. As of that day, the fund had already grown to $28,125 and was continuing to grow—and it was just getting started.
The Rev. Ken Nelson, an Epworth alumnus, brought a word of appreciation about the significant gifts Holler brought not only to the children’s home but to the world in the name of Jesus. He shared how Holler took an already thriving ministry and grew it into an even stronger organization, leading Epworth into a bold new future.
Nelson shared a story of how he was sitting with a friend roasting hotdogs and marshmallows around a campfire, and the friend stood to tend the fire. Tending the fire, Nelson said, was an important role, and no small task.
“It takes wisdom to know how many logs to add or take away,” Nelson said.
Turning to Holler, Nelson added, “John, you are one who knows how to tend to the fire. … You not only set Epworth on solid ground, but you made sure its flame was as powerful as it could be.”
Holler thanked the crowd for what he called an “amazing afternoon.”
He noted that his purpose had always been to make life better for “folks who started out life with not the best of breaks.”
Seeing how generational cycles have broken, and watching children grow up to make profound contributions to society, has been a true blessing, Holler said.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this day,” Holler said.
He noted he is excited to pass the leadership baton to Beth Williams, his successor, who he said has the passion, brains and work ethic needed to carry on the important work of Epworth.
Williams helped unveil a portrait of Holler, which was commissioned and will hang at Epworth in honor of Holler’s service.
Established in 1895 by what is today the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, Epworth Children’s Home was originally named Epworth Orphanage. For more than 120 years, Epworth Children’s Home has grown and adapted to the individual needs of children by providing quality care grounded in faith and responsibility. Epworth serves an average of 258 individuals every day, and the number grows each month. Children placed with Epworth foster parents represented the largest growth area this past year.