Exceeding expectations: CHS grad reflects on working in White House during Watergate scandal
By Ann Marie Shambaugh
When Holly Holm Guthrie attended her 10-year Carmel High School reunion in 1976, she earned the distinction of being “The One Who Succeeded Beyond Our Wildest Expectations.”
For someone who described herself as “not a great student” and never being a “terribly ambitious person,” the decade after graduation was a wild one, and very public. It included working at NASA, rubbing elbows on Capitol Hill and serving as secretary to one of the most famous men to end up in jail for the Watergate scandal: Chuck Colson.
Pretty impressive for an unassuming girl from small-town Indiana.
“I don’t think anyone really expected me to work in the White House. They thought I’d be a secretary in an insurance firm all of my life,” Guthrie said. “I’m grateful for the privilege to have done it. I think it helped me appreciate those who are trying to lead now.”
From Carmel to the Capitol
The Holm family moved to Carmel when Guthrie was about 5 years old. She had an older sister and eventually two younger brothers. Her parents loved “the smallness of Carmel,” she said.
As a high school student, Guthrie asked CHS Principal Dale Graham what he thought she should do after graduating, and he suggested a two-year secretarial program at Ball State. She took his advice, and after completing the course sent an inquiry to U.S. Rep. Richard Roudebush to see if he knew of any relevant job openings in Washington, D.C.
“I just wanted to go someplace fun,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t want to stay in Carmel because it was such a small town.”
Roudebush was on the space committee and sent her resume to NASA, which offered her a job. She left Carmel with a suitcase in one hand and a sewing machine in the other, she said.
“It was a very exciting time to be at NASA,” Guthrie said. “We were the office that would take the congressmen down to the Apollo launches.”
Her connections eventually led to a job in the White House as a secretary for Chuck Colson, who was appointed special counsel to President Richard Nixon in 1969. At the time, Colson was known for his ruthless style, making news for confirming in a tongue-in-cheek campaign memo that he would walk over his grandmother if necessary, a memo he dictated to Guthrie.
Nixon was re-elected by a landslide in 1972, but the celebration didn’t last long when the public began to learn more about the administration’s ties to a break-in at the Watergate office complex. Colson had left the White House to return to private practice by the time the scandal captivated the nation, and Guthrie went with him. She watched firsthand as her boss was questioned and indicted for his role before pleading guilty and sentenced to prison.
“I didn’t so much see that rough and tumble side (of Colson), but I certainly know he was capable of it,” Guthrie said. “When we left the White House and started the law firm again, he was very protective of me particularly. He would write my parents letters to assure them that I would not be tainted by this. He was always concerned about someone else.”
Guthrie’s younger brother, Woody Holm – named after the Woodland golf course near his childhood home – said the family didn’t worry about Guthrie during the Watergate years.
“It was probably 10 years after Nixon’s resignation it really soaked in that they really were doing illegal things and got caught, so I don’t know that it impressed us that much that she was there,” said Holm, now a Fishers resident. “We were sure she wouldn’t be involved in doing anything wrong, and I’m sure Chuck kept her isolated from that. She probably didn’t know what he was doing and probably for the best.”
But her long-time best friend, Shari Pratt Adams, whom she met as a student at Orchard Park Elementary, felt differently.
“We didn’t talk a lot during that time, but enough that I felt really compelled and wanted to be engaged and connected with her,” said Adams, a Carmel resident. “You have a sense of alarm when those things start happening within our national news and you know Holly’s there in the middle of it. It’s a concern.”
Guthrie was interviewed by special prosecutors but never accused of wrongdoing.
“I didn’t see unethical things happening. Nobody asked me to do unethical things,” Guthrie said. “I think they really thought what they were doing was for the good of the country.”
When Colson went to prison, Guthrie was burnt out on politics and left the law firm for a job in Chicago. But Colson’s influence on Guthrie was far from over.
During the Watergate investigation, Colson converted to Christianity. After being released from jail, he founded the Prison Fellowship ministry to share the hope he found in Christ with those who are incarcerated.
Guthrie, who grew up attending Orchard Park Presbyterian Church, said watching Colson’s transformation had a profound effect on her.
“Chuck was really instrumental, because I think he could tell looking at my lifestyle when his was changing that mine had never really looked like I was walking with the Lord,” Guthrie said. “I think that an important part of my coming to know the Lord was watching him come to know the Lord.”
In 1985, she married Don Guthrie, who was a singles pastor at the time. A decade later the couple moved to San Antonio, where Don serves as the senior pastor at First Baptist Church. They have two adult sons and two grandchildren.
Guthrie has remained close with the Colson family through the years. She attended the funeral of her former boss in 2012.
“I think if you were to ask Chuck now from heaven he would say the second part of his life with Prison Fellowship has so much more importance to it than what he did those first 50 years,” she said.
Guthrie now spends much of her time sewing pillows stitched with inspiration from Scripture. It’s a far cry from her busy days in the White House, but she has fond memories of that time.
“When you look back and you see the importance of it all, at the time it didn’t feel like it was as big as it all turned out to be,” she said. “I don’t have any regrets being there. It really was a phenomenal lesson in people and relationships and power.”
Returning to her roots
Although she was eager to leave Carmel as a young adult, Holly Guthrie said her opinion of the city has changed as she’s watched it grow through the years.
“It’s a beautiful place now,” she said. “I certainly would move back if I had the opportunity.”
Many of Guthrie’s family members still live in Indiana, including brothers in Fishers and north Indianapolis and her mother in Michigan City. Guthrie returns to the area frequently to visit them.
One of Guthrie’s favorite recent memories in Carmel is enjoying lunch at Woody’s Library Restaurant, which was the site of Carmel’s public library during Guthrie’s childhood.
“I remember being so impressed by the lady who checked out our books in the library. They used to write on a library card the dates it would be due, and they’d go and give you the book. I was so intrigued by that,” she said. “I can see now I love to do that sort of administrative work, so to go into that restaurant and eat a hamburger was just kind of amazing.”