- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

BURWELL, Neb. (AP) - Walk into Burwell Pharmacy, and you’ll likely hear Howard Holmquist’s voice over whatever else is happening.

“Can we help you? How can I help you?” he said on a recent afternoon, as customers filed in and out.

“Merry Christmas girls, and that was really nice Sunday.”

“Hey, I like your Christmas tree.”

Holmquist has been a fixture at the pharmacy for 55 years, and he knows just about everyone. But on Thursday, the last day of the year, Holmquist retired.

Even so, Holmquist is Burwell through and through, and he said he’s not going anywhere.

“I liked the people,” he told the Grand Island Independent (https://bit.ly/1QX5zM3). “They were good old Sandhillers, you know, just good people. And they still are.”

But though Holmquist can’t imagine leaving Burwell now, moving to the Garfield County community was never in his plans at the start.

Holmquist grew up in Bertrand, where his father worked as a grocer. He also worked at the grocery store, but he planned to become a teacher. One day, however, the town’s pharmacist talked to him and told him pharmacy might be a better fit for his outgoing personality.

The idea stuck.

Holmquist went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for pharmacy school, where he met his wife, Shari, who is from Auburn. After he graduated in 1960, the two moved to Broken Bow, and he started working as a pharmacist there.

About four months later, however, when Holmquist was having a sidewalk sale at the pharmacy, he ran into a friend from school. The friend was passing through on his way to Idaho, and he mentioned to Holmquist that Burwell needed a pharmacist.

Holmquist thought it would be nice to own a pharmacy, and he and Shari went to visit. Three days later, it was a done deal.

“We thought we’d like it in a small town,” Holmquist said. “We came here and signed the papers, and the rest is history.”

When they moved in November, he and Shari said, the town had only four paved blocks - but it quickly became home.

In about five years, Holmquist said, he knew just about every one of the county’s 2,000 residents. He told his brother, who lives in Omaha, that he could point to any house and ask the person who lived there for $20 and they would probably give it to him.

That small-town sense of community carried the Holmquists through one of the toughest times in their lives, as well, he said.

One of their daughters, Heidi, was diagnosed with cancer in 1968, and she died at age 4. At the time, Holmquist said, five area churches were praying for them.

“Having the community support at that time and having people at that time, that was one of those unreal things,” he said.

And Holmquist has given back to the community, too.

He has been the president of the Burwell Chamber of Commerce three different times and served on the Burwell Airport Authority for more than 50 years. He sold tickets for Nebraska’s Big Rodeo for 45 years, and he has been a Sunday school teacher at Burwell Baptist Church for more than 50 years.

Throughout that time, Holmquist has seen plenty of changes, too.

When he started, he said, doctors were still writing prescriptions, and they would have to look up anything they needed in a library kept close at hand. Now, everything is done on the computer, he said.

He went through the struggles of the 1980s, and three different years, he thought they might have to close and move to a bigger community.

Each time, business got better the next year.

More roads have been paved. And Holmquist has seen generations go by.

Two of his children, Hugh and Holly, have settled in Burwell. Hugh is a pharmacist and a doctor at Burwell Family Practice Clinic, and Holly is the nurse. Another daughter, Hope, is a special education teacher in Overland Park, Kan.

Four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren also live in Burwell.

Don Snyder, another pharmacist and co-owner, was 8 years old when Holmquist moved to Burwell, Holmquist said. His mother worked at the pharmacy, and he has been working at the pharmacy since 1968, when he was a junior in high school. He graduated pharmacy school in 1975 and became part owner in 2001.

Snyder is now a grandfather.

But seeing people like Snyder grow and change over the years is what has kept Holmquist working day in and day out, he said.

“It’s been, you can say, serving the people, but it’s getting to know the people and getting integrated in the community,” he said.

Those who know Holmquist say that’s what they appreciate about him, too.

Holmquist always made things fun at the pharmacy when he was growing up, Snyder said, and that personality still comes out.

“I think it makes people feel good when they come in because he makes them feel special,” he said.

Ruby Plock, a clerk at the pharmacy and Holmquist’s neighbor, agreed.

“He makes them feel at home,” she said. “I think everyone who’s done business here has felt at home.”

That feeling extends to the pharmacy’s staff, as well, Plock said.

Holmquist said that’s one of the reasons he has felt so blessed over the years.

“They’re like family,” he said. “We have sure had wonderful employees. They’re like friends and family.”

Snyder is like a son to him, he said, and several of the employees have worked there since the 1970s and 1980s.

Marg Beat is one of them. She has been working at the Burwell Pharmacy for almost 40 years, she said, but most days, it doesn’t really feel like work. Holmquist is always jolly, and he always has a word of wisdom, she said.

“I don’t think we had anybody quit cause they wanted to,” she said.

But Holmquist’s friendly words and fun personality aren’t the only things pharmacy staff and patrons will miss, Beat said.

They’ll miss his stories, even if they’ve already heard them all.

“It won’t be quite the same,” Plock said.

She said she’ll miss Holmquist’s routines, such as his special handshake with Don’s son, Derek, when he comes in for the day.

Derek Snyder, who graduated from pharmacy school in May, will be taking over with his father.

Though he has only been at the pharmacy for six years, Derek said he has heard just about all of Holmquist’s stories, and he’ll miss hearing all of Holmquist’s signature sayings.

Around quitting time, Derek Snyder said, Holmquist always says that the three best times of the day are quitting time, supper time and bed time. Another favorite is “from the time of your birth ‘til you ride in the hearse things are never so bad that they couldn’t be worse.”

Holmquist is a great man, Derek said, and he leaves big shoes to fill.

“It’ll be probably a little quieter,” he said.

For Holmquist, though, it’s not sad.

“It’s a graduation,” he said.

He plans to spend time on his hobbies - flying airplanes and riding motorcycles - and he is looking forward to taking longer trips with Shari.

And of course, he will keep his license and fill in at the pharmacy when needed, because he’s definitely not going anywhere.

“You like people, and you’re involved with their lives, and that’s been a positive thing,” he said.

“It’s home. I can’t imagine moving away from here.”


Information from: The Grand Island Independent, https://www.theindependent.com

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