David Holwerk, 1947-2020

The Kettering Foundation is deeply saddened to share that David Holwerk, Kettering’s director of communications, died of a heart attack on November 23, at the age of 73, at his home in New Albany, Indiana.

While Holwerk’s formal title at the foundation was director of communications and resident scholar, whenever he was introduced by his title at meetings he was quick to announce, “I assure you, I am neither.” The fact is, Holwerk’s role at the foundation was far more than any formal title could adequately convey.

Holwerk was wise-cracking, plainspoken, and he radiated joy. His idiosyncratic sense of humor revealed a belief in both the beauty and absurdity of life. He would bestow nicknames on coworkers, whether they liked it or not. He would show up at Kettering cocktail hours wearing 20 nametags, collected over the years. He would liven up Zoom calls with frequent hat changes, each more ridiculous than the next. He loved fishing, country music, and good bourbon.

But Holwerk also had a brilliant mind that could distill the essential point in any concept or prolonged discussion. He was known to nudge aside abstractions in meetings and bring talk down to earth with his pithy questions. He was an excellent editor, and when a colleague’s writing was up to or exceeded his standards, he would stamp it, in red, with the words “Wholly Adequate.”

Holwerk’s long and distinguished career as a journalist, which is detailed in this Lexington Herald-Leader piece, gave him a passionate belief in democracy and the mission of the Kettering Foundation. Reporting once on a conversation he had overheard at a restaurant, he smiled and said, triumphantly, “It was an example of deliberation—in the wild!” He could explain the most elaborate ideas with a story, a joke, and without using any words longer than two syllables.

When his beloved wife Colleen died in April of last year, after a 49-year marriage, Holwerk was grief-stricken, but his belief in life never wavered. He spent time with his son Louis, who lived nearby, and he decided to build a cabin in Roaring Creek, North Carolina, near the home of his other son, Charles. At the time of his death, construction on the cabin was 75 percent complete. Holwerk envisioned the cabin, with its huge, 600-square-foot deck and views of the surrounding hills, as a place where he would host his many friends. Now those friends are left with an incalculable sense of loss, but grateful for the memory of his smile, his kindness, and his unwavering faith in the future.

On learning of Holwerk’s death, Kettering Foundation President David Mathews said, “We knew this could happen, but that didn’t protect us from the shock of the news. Holwerk was always enthusiastic about his work at the foundation. To say we will miss him is an understatement. He was one of a kind.” His friends and colleagues at the foundation agree.