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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Memories of John Holliman

April 6, 1999
Web posted at: 11:19 a.m. EDT (1519 GMT)

John Holliman


I am here in Colorado Springs attending the 15th National Space Symposium. I was asked by the organizers to introduce a videotaped tribute to my predecessor on the space beat for CNN, John Holliman. As you undoubtedly know, John was killed in an auto accident on September 12 of last year. I thought I'd share my thoughts with you. -- MO'B

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -- I'll never forget the first time I met John Holliman.

I had been working as CNN's science correspondent for about six months. Holliman was based in Washington at the time -- and I was in Atlanta -- so our paths did not cross until he came to headquarters to work on the post-production of his "Return to Baghdad" documentary.

It was, in fact, that famous night in Baghdad which made me -- and millions of others around the world -- sit up and really take notice of Holliman's amazing knack for telling a story, especially those stories which were unfolding before his -- and our -- eyes.

When he compared the allied shelling to dozens of simultaneous fireworks displays, I understood the experience of war as I never had before. Leave it to the others to focus on the weapons systems, the tactics and the strategy. Only Holliman saw the odd juxtaposition of bone rattling, lethal power along with the strange, mesmerizing beauty ... and then summed it up in an analogy we could all relate to. As I understood later, it is the trait of a person who knows how to live in -- and how to savor -- the moment. John Holliman was just such a person

And leave it to the others to mask their flaws -- and their fear -- as they stand and deliver before their audience. Only Holliman could, without missing a beat, tell the planet that he was "proud to admit that he had never had the experience of being under fire."

In that instant, and so many others like it, he became much more than a reporter. He was your neighbor -- your friend -- on the other side of the fence -- or across the kitchen table -- regaling you with details of an incredible adventure. Holliman always treated his audience as if they were his good friends -- and, as it turned out, they were.

Glenn and Brown
Shuttle Commander Curt Brown, along with John Glenn, holds up a photo of Holliman aboard Discovery   

In fact on that day I spotted him in the hall outside the editing rooms, I felt like I was seeing an old friend. I stopped short and bit my tongue before casually saying "Hi" -- realizing an introduction was in order.

But, of course, it was not. He saw me, smiled from ear to ear, took a few quick strides my way. He stretched out his right hand -- grasped mine -- and shook it with an astounding amount of energy. Holliman never did anything, including hand shaking, without enthusiasm -- the kind of enthusiasm most of us leave behind with our memories of childhood.

"Miles O'Brien, I'm John Holliman. It's such a pleasure to meet you."

I am not sure exactly how I replied. But I do know precisely what I was thinking: "Really?"

He continued: "I've been watching your pieces. You do such a great job. It's an honor to work at a network with talented people like you."


It took me a while to realize it had to be for real -- because there simply wasn't anything about John Holliman that wasn't genuine. He said what was on his mind -- nothing more and, perhaps more importantly, nothing less.

As time went on, Holliman and I got the chance to work together on a series of projects. The first Hubble repair mission, Shoemaker-Levy 9, Galileo, the first Shuttle-Mir docking and a host of other shuttle flights. (For some reason his vacation always fell in the middle of one of those 16 day micro-gravity lab missions. Hmmm ...)

And don't misunderstand me, but when the two of us were on the air together, he had a way of, shall we say...well, this is an aviation-savvy crowd: He had a tendency to take the stick -- and hang on for dear life.

Mind you, in the shark tank where I work -- that's a trait that can earn you a long list of enemies. Not Holliman though. Not a chance.

Holliman and Cronkite
Holliman was to co-anchor with Walter Cronkite during John Glenn's mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery   

On the day I returned from Houston after Hoot Gibson and his crew had made history at Mir's doorstep, Holliman strode up to me on the newsroom floor, shook my hand with not an ounce less of enthusiasm -- and told me what a fine job I had done. Truth is, he had done most of the talking and, as I quickly learned, he knew it.

He said: "My wife says I talked way too much ... didn't include you enough. I guess I am a bit of an air hog. You're not mad are ya?"

Of course I wasn't. No one could be mad at John Holliman.

So when he asked if I wanted to be a part of the coverage of a certain shuttle mission last fall which got a little bit of attention, I didn't hesitate for a second. And then, when he told me he would be co-anchoring with Walter Cronkite I got even more enthusiastic. I guess it was contagious.

As you know, it didn't turn out as he planned. On that amazing day, I sat next to an icon, in a seat reserved for a legend. It wasn't an easy place to fill.

But I asked myself what would Holliman be doing now if the tables had been turned: He'd be telling a great story with all his energy and enthusiasm to his friends. So that is exactly what I tried to do. I hope I made him proud.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.

Remembering John Holliman

Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Downlinks Archive

The queasy stuff: a ride on the 'Vomit Comet'
March 30, 1999
Prize money propels record-quests
March 23, 1999
An idea that helped spin us into the space age
March 16, 1999
Astronomer names asteroid after CNN's John Holliman
October 21, 1998
CNN: John Holliman's biography page
CNN says goodbye to John Holliman
September 16, 1998
Remembering John Holliman
September 16, 1998

1999 National Space Symposium: SPACE Advancing Our World
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