As Director of the Office of Virginia’s First Lady, Asha Benson Holloman has met some interesting people: Queen Elizabeth, for example, to whom her daughter Anisa happily presented a bouquet of flowers, and to whom her father, who grew up in British-governed India, paid his respects. More recently she mingled with Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, soon to be President and First Lady of the United States.
In October 2006, Holloman brushed fame at her own alma mater when she traveled with Virginia First Lady Anne Holton to attend RU President Penelope W. Kyle’s inauguration. Governor Tim Kaine spoke at the inauguration ceremony, and Holton shared the stage with poet Maya Angelou and former First Lady of Egypt Jehan Sadat at the symposium “Women’s Leadership in a Global Society.”
The event completed a circle for Holloman. She told Sadat, face-to-face, the deep impression that Sadat had made on her 20 years earlier. Holloman, who completed her RU degree in fashion merchandising in December 1985, marched in the May 1986 commencement ceremony, where Sadat, a former RU Distinguished Visiting Professor, was the featured speaker. Meeting Sadat and Angelou, another former RU Distinguished Visiting Professor, were two thrills for Holloman during her return to campus. The third was witnessing the inauguration of Radford’s first woman president.
Donald Dedmon was RU’s president when Holloman was a student. She remembers the construction of the Dedmon Center and other changes taking place on campus, but what she remembers best is the warmth of the people of Radford, both on and off campus.
“I didn’t know anyone at Radford, and I remember standing at the window of the stairwell in Tyler Hall crying as I watched my parents leaving for the first time. What helped me was that the people in the community were so embracing of the students. My parents understood that, too.”
Another strong Radford memory is of Fernande Gard, a professor who taught sewing and perfectionism. Gard had spent her childhood in Belgium during the Holocaust. “She stressed how fortunate we were to have the opportunity to be in school. She wanted us to count our blessings and to make the most of what we had.” She did not mince words. After Holloman struggled with making a dress form, Gard gave her this assessment: “Your lady is bloated.” In spite of her stern face, Holloman said, Gard was “as sweet as can be. She was very serious, and she wanted us to be serious because we were preparing for our future.”
Readied by her professors and an internship at the Radford Leggett store, Holloman embarked on a career in retail. She worked in Washington, D.C. as a department manager for the iconic Woodward & Lothrop, then in Richmond as a manager trainee with La Vogue, and as a La Vogue store manager in Tidewater before she returned to settle in her native Richmond.
At that point, because she and her husband were ready to start a family, she left the retail business. Holloman began volunteering for the City of Richmond, filling in wherever needed, including the City Manager’s Office. Over time she took a position in the Mayor’s office, where her customer service skills came in handy for fielding constituent concerns. She worked for three mayors, including Tim Kaine, and when Mark Warner became Governor, Holloman went to work for him in the Office of Constituent Services.
Soon she was asked to work for First Lady Lisa Collis, and when Kaine moved into the Governor’s Mansion, she applied for her current position. In First Lady Holton’s office, located in the carriage house on the mansion grounds, Holloman is responsible for correspondence, scheduling, travel arrangements, staffing the First Lady at events and coordinating the First Lady’s schedule with the Governor’s busy schedule.
She describes Holton as “wonderful, caring, compassionate” and appreciates the good fortune of her position: “Someone once said to me, ‘Do you realize that you’re the only person in the Commonwealth of Virginia that has your job?’ I had never thought of it that way.”
Holloman’s husband, Bob, “a Hokie” with a degree in industrial engineering, owns the Holloman Group LLC, an engineering consulting firm, and Kollege Kicks, an online retailer of sneakers bearing college logos. They live in Glen Allen with their two daughters, Anisa, 11, and Ria, 8, whose East Indian names reflect the heritage of Holloman’s father.
Asked what advice she might offer current students, Holloman said she would like for them to consider the relationship between customer service and public service. “I would like to encourage them to consider a career in public service.”
She hopes her advice will be taken by at least one student her nephew, who has applied to RU. “I would love to see him go to Radford and have the kind of experiences I had there.” That would be another completed circle.