Our daughter, Holly, is one of the most fearless women I know. 

At 41 years of age, she is a mechanical engineer and partner at BBS Architects Engineers, one of Des Moines’ oldest building design firms, and she’s my go-to resource for home and car repairs.

That Holly Hardin Elbert is fearless is no surprise. She comes from a line of fearless women that dates back at least three generations to her great-grandmothers, Blanche Hardin and Cecilia Elbert.

Blanche Ford was born in 1891 in southern Missouri but struck out on her own in her early 20s, taking a train west to become a teacher in southern Idaho. She married Allan Hardin, a bookish farmer who was one of the first to cultivate irrigated land in Idaho. They had three children, including Holly’s grandmother Frances Hardin Craig, who moved to Iowa during the 1940s, where she had a remarkable writing career at the Des Moines Register. 

Cecilia Priester was born in northern Iowa in 1884, and taught school for four years before John J. Elbert, a budding entrepreneur, persuaded her to marry. They had five children before he died in 1927 from a flu-like illness. Cecilia raised the children with the help of her unmarried sister, and moved the family to Ames in 1939 so my father could attend Iowa State College, where he met and married my mother, Evelyn Everly.

Both of Holly’s grandmothers were genealogists, although they approached family history from different perspectives. As a writer, Frances produced lyrical stories about her Hardin and Ford forebears; Evelyn, who loved math, created thick volumes rich with names and dates. 

Holly’s mother, Amy, inherited Frances’ love of history and storytelling and had her own successful career as a newspaper and magazine writer. Now retired, Amy is extending her mother’s penchant for capturing and retelling family stories.

Which brings us to Holly, whose intelligence and independence were apparent from childhood.

At age 5, she wanted to play soccer, probably because her best friend, Lisa Grefe, who was a year older, did. Holly and Lisa played on an all-boy team for a year or two, because there were no all-girl teams before Debbie Reichardt created one for her daughter, Katie, and other neighborhood girls. They played all-boy teams for at least a couple of years until other clubs also created all-girl rosters.

Holly was small and not particularly fast and gravitated to the position of goalie, which requires truly fearless players. She played goalie all the way through high school, where she also played basketball, golf and ran cross country, along with piano and violin, and now guitar and banjo. 

At age 10, she was using power tools with supervision to build furniture.

In middle school, Holly’s math skills placed her in advanced courses taught at Des Moines’ Central Academy, which put her in classes with students from all over the metro area.

Her first week at Central was a challenge because two of her best friends bailed when they learned expectations were much higher than they’d previously experienced. Holly wanted to quit, too, but agreed to stay for at least one semester, at the end of which she was not only doing well academically, she had found many new friends with similar interests from all over the city. 

At some point, Holly decided to become an engineer. The trendy majors at that time were electrical and computer engineering, but she chose mechanical. “They’ll always need mechanical engineers,” she explained.

She reluctantly chose Iowa State University over Ivy League schools she could have attended, but which she would have left with enormous debt. Holly graduated “With Distinction” in a class where only 7% of graduating engineers were women.

Today, Holly lives in Ames with her wife, Dawn Budd, near my old neighborhood and works in downtown Des Moines.