Recently, President Barack Obama chose Eric Holder (’69) to be his Attorney General. Holder will be the first African-American to hold the post. Holder is also a proud Stuyvesant alumnus.
Eric Holder graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1969 with 721 other boys—the last graduating class during Stuyvesant’s all-male era. To many Stuyvesant students, much of Holder’s Stuyvesant experience will sound very familiar, including his path to Stuyvesant. A son of two working-class parents, one an immigrant from Barbados, Holder was always taught the importance of formal education. In elementary school he was selected to be in a program for gifted students. Holder took on leadership positions at an early age, running for class president in ninth grade. The same year, he took the SHSAT and entered Stuyvesant in 10th grade, which was at the time the customary grade to enter high school.
Holder found his first year at Stuyvesant extremely tough, calling it the most demanding year of any school he ever attended. “My first year there […] is the most difficult year I’ve ever had in an educational setting,” Holder said in a video on the Web site of Campaign for Stuyvesant, a trust fund for Stuyvesant supported by alumni. “That year in Stuyvesant really kind of gave me confidence in a way. Having gotten through it, I became convinced that there was almost nothing I could not do educationally, intellectually.”
Holder faced not only academic but also racial challenges. Stuyvesant students were primarily white males. Although Holder was involved in the Afro-American club, he felt isolated as one of only 33 African Americans in his class. This racial discrepancy is still an issue. While the number of girls has risen significantly since Holder graduated, from zero to about 40 percent, the percentage of African American students today has remained about the same as the percentage of African Americans in Holder’s year.
Holder grew up in East Elmhurst, Queens and commuted an hour and a half each way to Stuyvesant, a ritual many students today are familiar with. Located in the East Village, Stuyvesant was called the “15th Street Pressure Cooker” by its students due to its notoriously demanding academics. While Holder had excelled academically at previous schools, he was not a particularly outstanding student at Stuyvesant. “[Holder] was, I recall, studious, but also a mid-pack graduate,” said Howie Hollander, a ’69 graduate and Holder’s classmate. Although he wasn’t top of the class, Holder was very respected by his peers. “I remember Eric as quiet, with a sense of humor,” Hollander said.
“Eric was another one of the guys,” Ed Balaban (’69) said. “We were all academically adept and all of us were unique [. . .] but I recall Eric standing out for his athletic ability, scholarship and general reputation as a good guy.”
At Stuyvesant, Holder quickly found his niche as a basketball player. Now standing at an imposing 6’3″, Holder often played neighborhood pickup games and soon joined the Stuyvesant basketball team, the Peglegs. As a senior, Holder became the co-captain of the Peglegs. Now he plays with President Obama’s cabinet, which some call the best basketball playing cabinet ever.
Holder went on to attend Columbia and Columbia Law School, later serving as judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court for Ronald Reagan in 1988. Gaining a reputation for integrity, outspokenness and the fair enforcement of law, Holder was chosen by Bill Clinton to be the Deputy Attorney General under Janet Reno in 1997. Since then, he has worked as an attorney at the prestigious law firm Convington & Burling in Washington, D.C.
Holder is the first Stuyvesant graduate to be appointed to a presidential post. He was the keynote speaker for Stuyvesant in 2001, and the Master of Ceremonies for a Stuyvesant alumni reunion last May in Washington, D.C. Bob Sherwood (’70) went to school with Holder but met him for the first time at the event in Washington, D.C. “Eric was very gracious and intelligent – everything you would expect from a Stuy student,” Sherwood said. “He was very cool, similar temperament-wise to Obama.”
Principal Stanley Teitel also met Holder at the event and was very impressed with his demeanor. “Mr. Holder is very thoughtful and caring, and you can tell that he always tries to do the right thing,” Teitel said. “I’m very proud that the president elect has saw fit to nominate him.”