How James Holmes went from detention king to teaching guru

A testament to how brute willpower can help put mind over matter


Before taking a bite out of his blackened tilapia at The Tiffin Room, Dr. James Holmes said, “You may lose some battles, but you will win the war.”

He was speaking on the subject of honor and his decision to decline an offer to work for General Motors.

Holmes is a professor in the economics department with a long and rich history, despite his fair share of disadvantages. Diagnosed with a dyslexia-like learning disorder and adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, he has proven that with unwavering willpower, one can accomplish a lot.

The Indiana native wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth or a lid on his temper.

At 65 pounds in grade school, he would regularly get into fights with football players almost three times his weight.

During study halls, Holmes said he would use a slingshot to shoot chicken wire staples at kids who picked on him.

He garnered a reputation, among students and faculty alike, as a troublemaker.

“I didn’t learn to read until I was 13, couldn’t write a sentence, and my English was atrocious,” Holmes said.

He also spent time suspended from his primary and secondary school career for his mischievousness.

It wasn’t until he submitted a science project to a national science fair and placed third that his academic standing changed from a common miscreant to a top-tier intellectual.

Although he finished in the bottom half of his secondary school class, he went to Indiana’s Wabash College in 1955.

“[When I went there], I rented an apartment with a big closet and I put a lamp in there, a table and a chair, then I shut the door,” Holmes said. “I would have a minute-by-minute log of the pure study time I got in there, not drinking coffee, not going to the bathroom. You’d be surprised how much time you can waste.”

Holmes used this method to clock in 40 hours of study time a week.

At Wabash College, he earned exemplary grades and graduated with a triple major in economics, mathematics and English in 1959.

The same year he graduated, General Motors (GM) approached him for a job interview.

When the representative asked him the position Holmes aspired toward in the company, he responded with one word: “President.”

It was that confidence that would get him an interview with one of GM’s vice presidents.

“At the time, I was selling magazines door to door, believe it or not,” Holmes said. “I could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.”

After spending three days with GM in various departments, he received his offer: $6,000 a year, which would increase to $7,200 at the end of one year, six weeks working in the various departments, followed by two years of funded study for an MBA at a GM institution.

His response, which he says is still emotional for him to think about, was, “I have to turn your offer down. I always worked and I always prided myself on producing more for whoever I worked for.”

For Holmes, he reasoned that this was the most honorable thing to do.

“I feel you’re paying me too much to work six weeks in a section. I make a lot of mistakes, I’m a slow learner. I try, but I won’t be able to repay the mistakes I make in six weeks.”

This response stunned the GM representative.

After turning down GM, Holmes moved on to continue his academic career at the University of Chicago under the mentorship of Nobel Prize Winner Milton Friedman.

“After every lecture, he would spend two to three hours with me after class and argue,” Holmes said.

The two bonded by bouncing academic and intellectual ideas off of one another during the time they spent together after classes.

At the time Holmes was on the varsity debate team, a sport Friedman held in high regard. Holmes received his MA and PhD in economics, aided by Friedman’s mentorship.

Since his graduation from the University of Chicago, he has taught at nine institutions – most notably Purdue University – as well as having 37 pieces of his writing published in various academic publications.

At UB, Holmes teaches Economics 205: Money & Banking and Economics 407: Intermediate Macroeconomics, a course considered by some to be the most rigorous in the department. He also teaches a debate class in the fall.

Vivian Turnquest, a junior business and finance major, is currently enrolled in Holmes’ Econ 205 course.

“I find his lectures enlightening because of his examples and his use of real life experiences,” Turquest said. “He also shows the errors in our textbook.”

Holmes uses paradigms as a tool to help students better grasp a topic, as well as requiring his students to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and read it regularly.

“His stories tie in with the lectures and The Wall Street Journal articles,” Turnquest said.

Tyler Dash, a senior economics and political science major, is a teaching assistant for Holmes’ Econ 205 class and sees the opportunity to work under Holmes as a great experience.

“When I was approached to be his TA, I jumped at it because he’s highly respected [at] the University of Chicago, and it would be a bad idea not to,” Dash said.

As a previous student of Holmes, he understands the value of Holmes’ methods.

“His theory deviates slightly from conventional Keynesian theory, and you can only really learn it from him here. He’s a great professor,” Dash said.

Today, Holmes sits on a comfortable amount of capital gained from personal investments, teaching solely to educate students on how to manage money and become wealthy.

Holmes has more than a few stories under his belt, and his career is proof that no matter what battles life sends your way, hard work can win the war.

Kenneth Kashif Thomas is an arts staff writer and can be contacted at