Obituary of Holmes Alford Semken Jr.
Holmes Alford Semken, Jr.,(husband, father, grandfather, uncle, collector, traveler, sloth chaser, friend, student, and teacher) of Iowa City, Iowa, appears to have sat down in his favorite den chair, turned his reading lamp on over his right shoulder, skimmed through the daily newspaper, folded it neatly beside him, crossed his legs, and took his last breath on January 1, 2024. If wishes can come true, perhaps his did. He lived an independent life full of friends, memories, artifacts, and an earnest wish to stay in his home. Who could blame him? On his last day, he was encircled by familiar smells, art, books, photos of his wife and family, his favorite libations, and a comforting supply of holiday treats.
He began life on January 28th, 1935 in Maryville, Tennessee (born in Knoxville), and he soon began wandering the parks and mountains, especially the nearby caves. He considered himself a spelunker his whole life even when his family ended up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Rockdale, Texas. His life’s story really rests on the shoulders of two things: 1) His parents: Edith and Holmes Semken Sr. His father, a well-respected chemist at Alcoa inspired him to succeed and his mother encouraged his passions including history and family. I recall when I was young how proud they were when he earned tenure during his 35-year career in Geology (as a Vertebrate Paleontologist) at the University of Iowa (1965-1999). He retired as a Professor Emeritus, although he remained busy excavating a trio of giant ground sloths in SW Iowa. 2) His wife. He adored and married Elaine Friedrichs, his University of Texas sweetheart and loyal wife of over sixty years. Together they reared two children: Steven and David, traveled the world, created friendships, and devised an enviable life.
He was always proud of his parent’s Southern heritage in Charleston, South Carolina. He never turned down a good serving of grits with butter and hot sauce, a plate of black-eyed peas or lima beans, savored a warm bowl of okra gumbo. He was very proud of knowing his lineage was Semken, Klinck, and Tiedeman. He was a lifelong learner: almost constantly reading about the world around him. Serious perhaps on one hand, but moved just as easily to laughter. He chuckled while watching M*A*S*H, snickered listening to A Prairie Home Companion, savored groan-worthy puns, and certainly never missed the opportunity to tell an Aggie joke (it’s a Texas thing y’all).
He loved all his dogs: Button, Thunder, Patches, Charlie, Jenny, Sassy, and JJ. No more need be said really, this is a straightforward truth.
He wasn’t much for motorized items, enjoyed a few cups of coffee to start his day, and had a fondness for things a bit off-center–for instance, the first pet I recall growing up with was a kangaroo rat named Dippy. Our family's life on Kimball Road centered around the “department.” He walked to work and was quite content. He frequently suggested the key to success was walking to work, and only owning one car.
There were times we heard others speak of him in ways that didn’t surprise us: What’s that smell? Why is he boiling animal road kills? For their skeletons. A geologist needs bones. We had a fair number of student/faculty parties at the house growing up. In Iowa City during the 1960s, serving nachos and jalapenos was uncommon but quite popular. He attended Hawkeye football games for decades; he seemed to enjoy the losses equally as much as the wins. Although not a gardener he did make a point of planting a birch and two ginkgo trees in the yard. We also had a magical rock garden and a lively bird feeder.
If you knew him well you knew he loved collecting military items, as well as colorful beer steins, ceramic European pipes, airline swizzle sticks, tintypes, the list goes on. If you didn’t know any of this there was no problem. He was good-natured and found what others did interesting. He enjoyed most things in life, and other than seafood, indulged in the cuisine of all nationalities and liked a stiff drink to end each day.
If asked to sum him up I might say, he found it easier to trust the world and if need be, suffer what those consequences might be. He was pickpocketed in Malta but nothing came of it. He carried a lot of cash in large cities and pulled it out in crowds to pay for things with no worries. He walked Central America amidst unrest as undeterred as though he were walking the streets of Goliad, Texas.
He was intrigued by the world and blessed to have seen a lot of it. Stonehenge sure, but also remote geological locations in Siberia, and China. Snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef and the waters of Tahiti. Walked the streets in Pakistan. Loved northern Europe. Toasted the world from Cape Horn. Spotted whales in every ocean. Ventured beneath the Northern Lights while watching polar bears. Wandered Incan, Aztec, and Mayan ruins. Safaried Africa. Explored Civil War battlefields. Honored Darwin in the Galapagos and so much more. He had good timing too: Europe as a youngster soon after World War Two. Russia during the Cold War. He lived an eyes-wide-open and blessed life.
So as we begin, so must we end: Holmes A. Semken Jr. sat down in his favorite chair in Iowa City a few days ago. Arranged himself just right, closed his eyes, and took his last breath. I believe he trusted that this world and the ones he leaves behind will be fine.
A time of visitation for family and friends will be held from 4 to 7pm Thursday, January 11, 2024, at Gay & Ciha Funeral and Cremation Service. Private family graveside services will be held at Oakland Cemetery. In lieu of flowers memorial donations can be made in his memory to either University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, mnh.uiowa.edu/support/make-donation,11 Macbride Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52242 or American Battlefield Trust, battlefields.org/give,1156 15th Street NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005.
2720 Muscatine Ave.
Iowa City, Iowa
319-338-1132 or 1-866-338-1132
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