Deborah K. Holmes (July 31 1963—January 4 2021)

I don’t know how to write about Deborah’s death, and it turns out I don’t need to. Chris Black and Jason Stewart invited me to be on their How Long Gone podcast a few weeks ago, and when we taped the episode, it all came out. (My bit starts thirteen minutes in.) I’m grateful to Jason and Chris for clearing out some space.

The below was written by her husband, Van Gosse.

Deborah Kim Holmes 

July 31, 1963—January 4, 2021

Deborah Kim Holmes died this week from the effects of pancreatic cancer, deeply mourned by her sons, Sam and Jonah; her husband, Van Gosse; her brother Gregory and sister Pamela, and a host of friends, family, and colleagues in Europe and America.

She was born in New York city on July 31, 1963, while her parents, Douglas and Monica Bychowski Holmes, were finishing their PhDs in Psychology at New York University. Her mother was the daughter of Gustav Bychowski, a Polish psychiatrist who had studied with Freud. The Bychowskis fled Poland days after the Nazi invasion in 1939, and made their way to the U.S. via Sweden, the Soviet Union and finally Japan. This family memory shaped Deborah’s worldview; starting in 2000, she and her mother organized annual reunions of their extended European family from Poland, France, and Russia.

In 1966, Deborah entered the Dalton School, from which she graduated in 1980. During her childhood, she traveled with her parents every year in Europe or around the U.S., which shaped a lifelong taste for exploration. At Dalton, she was a top student, editing the school newspaper and acting in many plays. In 1980, she entered Harvard University, eventually becoming a Government Major. She wrote extensively for the Harvard Crimson, and researched an Honor’s Thesis contrasting press coverage of the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Falklands War, subsequently published as Governing the Press: Media Freedom in the U.S. and Great Britain. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1984, she spent a year as a freelance journalist and researcher in London before entering Harvard Law School in 1985.

After gaining her J.D. in 1988, Deborah spent a year practicing corporate law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Disillusioned and bored, she talked her way into a job at the Families and Work Institute (FWI), a pioneering nonprofit in the field of workplace gender equity. From 1989 to 1995, she consulted with companies, governments, and unions about how to level the playing field for women workers, becoming a noted expert in the field. While at FWI, she also fell in love with a colleague, Sasha Frere-Jones, the musician and later music critic for The New Yorker. In 1994 they were married, and in 1997, their first child was born, Samuel Robin Frere-Holmes; in 2000, he was followed by Jonah Gibson Frere-Holmes.

In 1995, Deborah moved to the consulting firm Catalyst, where she oversaw a major project for Ernst & Young, the financial services and accounting firm. In 1996, EY’s CEO, Philip A. Laskawy, hired her away from Catalyst to direct the organization’s efforts to develop and advance women into leadership positions. She pioneered intensive training sessions and focus groups, leading to annual Women’s Leadership Conferences. On that basis, she was named a World Economic Forum Global Leader for Tomorrow and a Crain’s New York Business Rising Star. By 2003, a much larger percentage of women were becoming partners, and today women now lead at all levels of, with her mentorship and vision recognized as the spark for that transformation.

In 2003, Deborah created Ernst & Young’s Corporate Responsibility function. Working to increase the firm’s social impact, her Corporate Responsibility team since then has had a particular focus on developing future generations of talent, growing the positive effects of entrepreneurs, and building a more diverse and inclusive society. College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence), one of four EY signature programs developed under her leadership, is a multi-year, group-mentoring program focused on empowering students in under-served high schools so they can gain access to college and succeed in higher education. Now operating in 31 US cities, College MAP matches groups of EY volunteer mentors (of all levels, backgrounds and service lines) with groups of local high school students. 

Deborah and Sasha were divorced in 2006, although they remained friends. At the end of 2008, Deborah reconnected with Van Gosse, her college boyfriend, a historian and political activist who teaches at Franklin and Marshall College. They lived and traveled together very happily for the next twelve years, and were married on September 12, 2020. Six weeks earlier, she had received a diagnosis of cancer and entered treatment, which proved unavailing. After a final joyful Christmas, she died early in the New Year, with her family around her.

(First photo, SFJ, June 20, 2006; second photo, Jesse Kaplin, September 12, 2020.)