Biloxi was on the verge of bankruptcy when A.J. Holloway was first elected mayor in 1993, a year after casino gaming was legalized in Mississippi and long before thoughts of a storm such as Hurricane Katrina could be imagined.
Holloway, who became the longest serving mayor in the history of Biloxi, died early Tuesday morning. The 79-year-old was a former standout at Ole Miss and a retired senior agent with the Mississippi Tax Commission. He retired as mayor due to health reasons in 2015, ending a 22-year career.
Holloway has since been known for his fiscal discernment, love of everything Biloxi, its culture and quality of life. He will be remembered for overseeing the city in its most prosperous time during the casino boom and its most challenging times following Hurricane Katrina — and he never raised taxes.
Holloway was born in Ocean Springs but moved to Biloxi because he wanted to play football. He became a local football star and earned a scholarship to Ole Miss, where he earned a bachelor's degree in education. He played in two Sugar Bowls and a Cotton Bowl and was part of the Rebels' 1960 national championship team.
He was a teacher and coach early in his career. He also owned and operated Mary's Drive-In, was vice president of Banker's Trust and business manager of the Biloxi School District before he went to work for the tax commission.
Holloway admittedly was never comfortable with public speaking, but once he won voters' hearts in his first election, his popularity at the polls continued to grow.
Holloway served as a city councilman for one term before he won his first election the old-fashioned way, going door to door. He was re-elected in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013, resigning mid-way in his sixth term in 2015 due to health reasons.
His experience as a councilman and the city's economic woes before casinos moved in prompted him to recommend a $92,000 investment in a business-interruption insurance policy two months before Katrina. He is credited with helping the city recoup $10 million in gaming revenue that otherwise would have been lost.
Holloway led the city from the early days of casinos in Biloxi — boosting the economy and bringing jobs that offer insurance —and through advance preparations for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and recovery from the devastation.
He and his wife Macklyn rode out Katrina on the second floor of City Hall and watched the storm surge flood the building's first floor. When the storm subsided, the city lay in ruins. The massive Category 5 hurricane claimed at least 50 lives in Biloxi, destroyed 6,000 homes and businesses, shut down schools and left more than 15,000 casino employees without a job.
"It was our tsunami," Holloway told the Sun Herald in a quote that went viral.
"He was a force," Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich said in a news release.
"He was always in it, and that smile was infectious."
Holloway's death announcement was posted on Biloxi's Facebook page around 6 a.m. on Tuesday. People began commenting on the post almost immediately after it was posted.
Holloway was long known for being frugal, though he supported development, education, historic preservation and affordable housing.
"He'd spend the money as if it were his own," lifelong Biloxi resident Arleen Canaan told the Sun Herald after Holloway retired.
"You weren't going to pull the wool over A.J.'s eyes. He always took his time to make the right decisions for the city."
Holloway also will be remembered for bringing baseball to Biloxi and running a relatively scandal-free City Hall. He won the office of mayor by defeating incumbent Pete Halat, who was sentenced in 1997 to 15 years in prison for a conspiracy that led to the 1987 killings of Circuit Court Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife Margaret.
Holloway made one of his last public appearances with the City of Biloxi during a Mardi Gras parade in 2017. He became ill at the parade and had to be taken by ambulance to a local hospital.
Accomplishments while Holloway was mayor
Biloxi's website lists these accomplishments during Holloway's "unprecedented number of quality-of-life improvements" as mayor.
- Boosted the economy with casinos to create 15,000 jobs, generated $6 billion in development and increased the annual number of tourists from 1 million to as much as 10 million, accounting for billions in revenue.
- Tripled the size of the city's police and fire departments; built the $10 million Lopez-Quave Public Safety Center and new fire stations in east Biloxi, north Biloxi and Eagle Point.
- Oversaw construction of the Donal M. Snyder Sr. Community Center, renovation and expansion of the Biloxi Community. Center and construction of an 80-acre sports complex in north Biloxi. The sports complex was named for Holloway.
- Invested $80 million in public education through the building of four new public schools, including a state-of-the-art high school.
- Tens of millions of dollars were invested in municipal facilities including libraries, community centers, parks, playgrounds an ballfields.
- The city received state assistance for major road projects, such was the widening of Caillavet Street, Cedar Lake Road and Popp's Ferry Road, and the construction of Back Bay Boulevard.New roads were built and old ones were rebuilt.
- A $35 million affordable housing initiative in east Biloxi provided housing opportunities and residents citywide saw their property tax rate drop by 60 percent.
- Abolished fees for youth sports leagues.