Broken Barriers: EE Alumnus’ Varsity Sweater in Walk of Fame
University’s first African-American graduate and the first African-American to play on a Wolfpack athletic team, Irwin Holmes donated his tennis varsity letter sweater to the new NC State Athletics Walk of Fame and History in the renovated Reynolds Coliseum.
Irwin Holmes donated his tennis varsity letter sweater to the new NC State Athletics Walk of Fame and History in the renovated Reynolds Coliseum. Cherished mementos are hard to part with. Doubly so for Holmes, an graduate from NC State ECE, who broke the color barrier to earn his.
When Holmes left NC State in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, he became the University’s first African-American graduate. He was one of four African-American students to enroll in 1956, and when he joined the varsity tennis squad, he was the first African-American to play on a Wolfpack athletic team.
After graduation, Holmes went on to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Drexel University. He then worked for several companies before landing at IBM. He spent 19 years there and contributed to several high-profile computer projects. Holmes has also been an entrepreneur and developed a shopping center in Durham, NC, started a gourmet restaurant, and developed other real estate ventures.
Holmes has stayed involved with the University, supporting students through the NC State Engineering Foundation and the University’s Minority Engineering Programs. The Irwin Holmes and Black Alumni Society Conference Room on Centennial Campus was named in his honor.
Holmes returned to campus in September to visit the Walk of Fame and History and see his letter sweater’s new home. He also paid a visit to J.W. Isenhour Tennis Complex on campus, home to the Wolfpack men’s and women’s varsity tennis teams.
Men’s tennis head coach Jon Choboy and members of the men’s varsity team took a break from practice on a sweltering early autumn day to talk to Holmes about his experiences at NC State and the lessons he took from them.
Holmes told the players about a trip back to Raleigh from Chapel Hill, where Holmes and his teammates had finished a series of matches against rival UNC. The famished team stopped at a local diner for a meal.
A few minutes after they had ordered their food, the owner approached Holmes’ coach and told him that he wouldn’t serve the team unless Holmes left the diner. Saying that they wouldn’t eat without their teammate, the entire team got up and walked out.
“That was typical of the kind of support I got from the team,” Holmes said.
He described his time on campus as a varsity athlete, remarking to today’s team how much the facilities for NC State tennis have been upgraded since his time.
Holmes provided the students an important reminder of how fortunate they are.
“It’s a rare experience to get to play a varsity sport in college,” Holmes said. “What you get from it will follow you the rest of your life, no matter what you do.”
The current men’s tennis team, including fellow electrical engineer Ivan Saveljic, presented Holmes with several Wolfpack clothing items during his recent visit to campus, including a brand new varsity letter jacket.