Mr. Holton helped break the domination of Virginia politics by the Byrd political organization, which ardently supported racial segregation, and his election as governor in 1969 made him the first Republican to hold statewide office in Virginia in the 20th century.
He persuaded the legislature to raise the income tax and the gasoline tax, and he used the money for environmental protection, higher education and transportation projects. But he called his work on race relations “the greatest source of satisfaction and pride for me.”
In his inaugural address from the steps of the Capitol of the old Confederacy, Mr. Holton quoted Abraham Lincoln in calling for an open society that operates “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
“Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed,” he said.
Mr. Holton opposed busing as a tool to achieve integration, but when a federal appeals court affirmed the order to require busing in Richmond’s schools in the summer of 1970, the Holtons decided as a family to participate, even though the governor’s mansion was not technically in the area covered by the order.
He drew international attention on the first day of school in September 1970, eight months after his inauguration, when he escorted his daughter Tayloe to Kennedy High School. His wife was enrolling two of the couple’s younger children at a mostly Black middle school.
“What I did, and what I tried to emphasize, was: Look, the system requires an answer, and the answer comes from the courts, and if the courts give this answer, then you’ve got to comply with it,” Mr. Holton said in an interview for this obituary. “That’s fundamental to the republic. . . . And that’s what made me feel so good as I walked up to that school.”
But even before Mr. Holton’s term was up, the Virginia GOP had moved to his right and the governor openly split with Richard M. Nixon over the president’s Southern strategy of building a Republican majority by winning over conservative Southern Democrats.
“If he could ever have gotten another Republican nomination, he would have been back in office,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said of Mr. Holton. “The party wouldn’t nominate him. They had gone well to the right of Linwood Holton and kept moving.”
Abner Linwood Holton Jr. was born Sept. 21, 1923, in Big Stone Gap, Va., in the southwestern part of the state where his father was president of a coal mine railroad.
He graduated in 1944 from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He returned to Virginia after obtaining a degree from Harvard Law School in 1949.
A few years later, he met Virginia “Jinks” Rogers, a CIA intelligence analyst from a prominent Democratic Virginia family, on a blind date. They wed in 1953. In addition to his wife, of Kilmarnock, survivors include four children, Tayloe Loftus of Cazenovia, N.Y., Anne Holton of Richmond, A. Linwood “Woody” Holton III of Columbia, S.C., and Dwight Holton of Portland, Ore.; a sister; and 10 grandchildren.
As Mr. Holton began gravitating toward GOP politics in the 1950s, Virginia was in the middle of the 40-year reign of Harry F. Byrd Sr., who as governor and then as senator commanded the dominant Democratic Party with strict adherence to fiscal and social conservatism. Virginia’s taxes were minimal, as was its support for education, roads, mental health care and other services.
In the 1950s, dissatisfaction with the Byrd organization, notably in the cities and suburbs that stretched from Northern Virginia to Norfolk. New residents were eager for more services, and the popularity of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought many voters to the party.
Mr. Holton became a leader among the state party’s moderates and narrowly lost a 1955 race for a House of Delegates seat from Roanoke by campaigning for compliance with the previous year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ordering an end to segregation of public schools.
Virginia’s governor at the time, Thomas B. Stanley, took the same position at first, but Byrd decided instead on a policy of “massive resistance” to integration.
Mr. Holton worked on building the Republican organization as a party official and during his low-budget race for governor in 1965, when he lost to Democrat Mills E. Godwin Jr. He had the campaign support of Eisenhower and former vice president Nixon. Mr. Holton, in turn, was an early leader of Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign for president.
The next year, with Democrats badly divided, Mr. Holton received help from the state’s major union and Black organizations as well as Nixon to beat William C. Battle in the race for governor. The Republican Party had arrived in Richmond.
“When this man was elected governor in 1969, I felt — like most loyal Democrats — that the world had come to an end,” Gerald L. Baliles, a later governor, said at a 1999 conference on Mr. Holton’s term.
With just a handful of fellow Republicans in the General Assembly, Mr. Holton established friendships with moderate Democratic lawmakers and persuaded them on some key initiatives.
“He had a productive career, and the General Assembly was 85 percent Democratic, but that actually helped him,” Sabato said. “They didn’t see him as a threat. They viewed him as a fluke. . . . He was much more than a transitional figure. He helped Virginia move into the modern era on race and lots of other things.”
In an effort to stop pollution of Virginia waterways, Mr. Holton won an increase in the income tax to upgrade sewage treatment plants. He also instituted a Cabinet form of government and appointed minorities, Democrats and even out-of-state experts to important jobs in his administration.
One such appointment was of Ernie Fears Sr., the Norfolk State University basketball coach and athletic director, as director of Virginia’s Selective Service program. “Two-thirds of the kids that we were drafting for the Vietnam War were Black,” Mr. Holton said. “So I wanted somebody to integrate that system and found out that Ernie was the guy I wanted.”
After leaving office in 1974, Mr. Holton briefly served as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations in the Nixon administration. He became a partner in the law firm Hogan & Hartson in Washington and Richmond and said he was not “one of the book lawyers,” acting instead as a dealmaker and a lobbyist.
One deal he made, at the request of then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, put Washington National and Dulles International airports under local control. The two airports had been the only ones in the nation run by the federal government, and Mr. Holton lobbied members of Congress for two years to create the airports authority.
“If we had not assured them that they would have parking right close to the gate, Congress wouldn’t have passed it,” he said.
As chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Mr. Holton helped push for modernizing the airports and expanding Dulles while responding to the concerns of Washington-area residents. But he had limited sympathy for people who moved near the airports and then complained about the noise. As a resident of McLean, Va., he used the roar of the jets from National to cover up his deliberate violation of Fairfax County firearms ordinances.
Mr. Holton said that, like his father, he liked to garden, and he was frustrated because he realized that the squirrels were getting all the fruit from the peach tree he had planted in his front yard. So he got out his bird gun.
“I would sit outside my garage and wait for the noise of the planes overhead,” he said. “Altogether that fall, I killed 13 squirrels and got three bushels of peaches.”