It could have been easy for Dennis B. Holmes ’76 to feel bitter.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Holmes participated in every sport imaginable. And he was good at them— fast, quick, and strong. But he was an athlete without an advocate.
Holmes, who is believed to be the first Black ice hockey player at Illinois State University (he played on the B team from 1973 until graduation), freelanced his athletic career. He bounced around to different sports and sought out his own opportunities through pickup games and thrown-together tournaments. Holmes always wonders what could have been if someone invested in him, especially since his own father died while Holmes was just 4 years old.
He channeled that question and turned it into motivation. After earning a sociology degree from the University, he vowed to make sure other Black men growing up in Chicago wouldn’t go through life pondering that same question. While he had opportunities to stay in the Bloomington-Normal area to work jobs that would have paid the bills, he returned to Chicago to pave a path for others.
“I knew there were a bunch of Black kids that needed a mentor, a coach, and a motivator,” Holmes said. “I knew where I was needed.”
After graduation, Holmes landed a job for the Chicago Youth Center, a neighborhood youth program where he coached young kids in basketball and floor hockey. Holmes saw their journeys through after investing early on in their lives.
Marlo Finner met Holmes as an eighth grader, playing basketball for the pioneer hockey player. Holmes provided mentorship and at times took on a fatherly role, which Finner and his peers genuinely appreciated.
Finner, who would later go on to play basketball at the University of Missouri, treasured how genuine and upfront Holmes was with him, and he knew he could always rely on that trust.
“He was supportive and encouraging all the time,” said Finner, who is paying it forward himself as a basketball coach at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago. “He helped me work hard and believe in myself. He was very instrumental in my upbringing.”
Finner is one of just hundreds of young men Holmes has guided to larger heights. He helped send many of those kids on to college, encouraging strong study habits. And he advocated like crazy.
“His name was definitely one you wanted to bring up to people,” Finner said.
Holmes wishes he had more of a structured athletic life growing up—he only began playing hockey because there was no fieldhouse in his Chatham neighborhood during the winter months, and the frozen field became the only option to release that competitive nature.
But he had the self-awareness to know there were other avenues to pursue. He played football at Kennedy King Junior College before enrolling at Illinois State, seizing an opportunity to reward his mother.
“My mother brought me up in a strong home,” Holmes said. “I wanted to carry on a little further and do something she didn’t have the opportunity to do and get an education.”
Holmes worked hard in his sociology classes at Illinois State while also maneuvering through a sport that was—and still is—predominantly white. After he graduated from the University and began working in Chicago, he passed his love for hockey to other Black kids. Holmes had to be their role model in the sport, so to speak, because of the lack of representation.
“They had to emulate somebody,” Holmes said.
In just a few short years, he guided the first all-Black team—his group of 8-10 year olds—to the city floor hockey championships, rising to the top of a league consisting almost exclusively of white players.
Mentees rallied around Holmes. “He was a father figure to so many,” Finner said. Holmes coached a plethora of high-profile basketball players in the Chicago area—including notable names such as Finner, Juwan Howard, Craig Jackson, Phil Harris, and Lee and Terry Cummings.
In 1986, Holmes co-founded the No Dope Express Foundation to help youth fight drugs and gang violence. He was the vice president, general manager, and head coach. From 1998 to 2008, he was the business manager at Rudyard Kipling Elementary School. He was then a special education assistant at Brownell Elementary School until his retirement in 2018.
Holmes dedicated his life to advocate for those who needed somebody to believe in them. He’s proud to have watched these young kids grow into the adults they’ve become. They worked hard on the court and in the classroom, Holmes said, and learned lessons that would help them develop the personality and character they would need to be positive and contributing members to their communities.
“I get a little emotional when I think of all the youth—many of them are adults now—that I have positively influenced,” Holmes said. “Many of them are giving back to coaching and counseling youth in their community.”