Phila. port 'empire' builder Thomas J. Holt Sr. dies

Thomas J. Holt Sr. , who builta marine-terminal dynasty, died at his home in Northeast Philadelphia on Monday.
Thomas J. Holt Sr. , who builta marine-terminal dynasty, died at his home in Northeast Philadelphia on Monday.
Posted: June 21, 2011

Thomas J. Holt Sr., 74, the Philadelphia upstart who entered the marine-terminal business in 1967 and built a port dynasty on both sides of the Delaware, died at his home in Northeast Philadelphia on Monday afternoon of prostate cancer.

He is survived by three sons and two daughters, 15 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Son Tom Holt Jr. runs Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia. Son Leo is president of Gloucester Terminals L.L.C., privately owned by the Holt family. Another son, Michael, manages Delaware Avenue Enterprises, which consists of the Publicker site at Columbus Boulevard and Packer Avenue and several refrigerated warehouses. Several grandchildren, including Tom 3d and Eric, are in the family business.

"Tom Holt Sr. was a significant leader on the Delaware River over the last 30 or 40 years. He was a real entrepreneur and contributed significantly to the success of the regional ports," said Dennis Rochford, president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay.

Mr. Holt's father operated a regional trucking business, which Mr. Holt and his brother Leo expanded into terminal operations in South Jersey and on Packer Avenue.

"No one individual has transformed the port in as meaningful a way as Tom Holt Sr.," said Robert Blackburn, senior deputy executive director of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority.

"He built an empire. His organization controls perhaps the best marine terminal on the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River as well as on the New Jersey side. He was incredibly bright, hardworking, aggressive, and tenacious in pursuit of his company and his family's best interest."

In 1990, the Philadelphia port authority put out a bid request for a new terminal operator of its largest marine terminal, Packer Avenue. Mr. Holt's company was awarded the lease and has been operating the terminal ever since.

Mr. Holt was born in Philadelphia in 1936 to Edna and Leo Holt and grew up in the Juniata Park section. In October 1962, he married Joan Smykal.

Mr. Holt attended Holy Innocents Elementary School, graduated in 1955 from North Catholic High School, and served in the Navy for seven years, including in Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban missile crisis.

"From humble beginnings and over many ups and downs, the family's track followed that of the country from the Great Depression, through World War II and Korea, to the 1960s," said son Leo. "They applied very American values of self-reliance, perseverance, and willingness to work hard to create their own luck. One of his favorite sayings was, 'The best help you can ever find is at the end of your own two hands.' "

The younger Holt recalled that his father had been described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as "swashbuckling" and a "salty maverick," and was once profiled by the Wall Street Journal for his willingness to stand up for his beliefs.

Mr. Holt and his brother Leo expanded the family trucking and warehousing business into shipping and port operations, the sale and purchase of ships, and working to increase cargo and commerce on the Delaware.

"As the port prospered, so did the business and his family," wrote son Leo.

"Beginning in the 1960s and through very recently, it was common for him to leave home on a Monday, have lunch and dinner on a Tuesday in Tokyo, and be home with his wife and children in Philadelphia on a Wednesday," Leo Holt said. "He was in Cuba at least four times; prior to the revolution as a young tourist, then again as part of a U.S. delegation, and twice more in recent years.

"On two occasions in the 1970s, he was a passenger aboard an airliner that was hijacked on its way back to Philadelphia. He downplayed adventures like this and the time he was trapped for a few days in war-torn Beirut as normal occurrences for one building a business," his son said.

In addition to his sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Mr. Holt is survived by his wife, Joan; daughters Melissa Fluehr and Joan Rybas; a sister, Edna White of Philadelphia; and brother Leo Jr. of Boca Raton, Fla.

Service arrangements were incomplete.

Updated Tuesday June 21

A viewing will be Thursday (June23) from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Holy Ghost Preparatory School Chapel 2439 Bristol Pike, Bensalem, and on Friday (June24) from 9 a.m. to noon at St. Katherine of Siena Church 9738 Frankford Ave, Philadelphia before a Mass at noon. Burial will be Holy Sepulchre Cemetery 4001 W. Cheltenham Ave, Philadelphia.


Contact staff writer Linda Loyd

at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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