Gerry Holzman working on a woodcarving, and in 2003 with...

Gerry Holzman working on a woodcarving, and in 2003 with his favorite carousel animal that he carved, Freddie de Frogge, for the Empire State Carousel. Credit: Newsday/Michael E. Ach

Master woodcarver Gerry Holzman, who spearheaded the creation of the Empire State Carousel and taught for a quarter-century at Long Island public schools, died Friday at his home in Brunswick, Maine. He was 90.

Family members said he died of natural causes.

Holzman, whose woodwork was commissioned by clients including Cunard Lines, Disney World and the South Street Seaport, additionally taught woodcarving, wrote three books on the topic and ran workshops for teachers. He lectured under the auspices of the New York State Council on the Arts.

“He was incredibly creative, incredibly talented, very funny and a great storyteller,” said Paul D’Ambrosio, president and CEO of The Farmers’ Museum in upstate Cooperstown, where the Empire State Carousel operates. “What I remember most about him is his desire to leave a permanent civic gesture.”

Dedicated in 2005 after more than 20 years of work by an estimated nearly 1,000 volunteers, the carousel mounts 23 riding animals indigenous to New York State, 21 carved portrait panels of notable New Yorkers and eight carved folklore panels depicting state regions. Long Island is represented by privateer-turned-pirate Capt. William Kidd, who famously left treasure buried on Gardiners Island.

The woodcarving of Capt. William Kidd, who famously left treasure buried on...

The woodcarving of Capt. William Kidd, who famously left treasure buried on Gardiners Island, on the Empire State Carousel. Credit: Newsday/Michael E. Ach

For all his achievements in the field, Holzman did not take up woodcarving until age 40, following stints in the military and as an educator. 

Gerald Holzman was born June 8, 1933, in the Bronx, the eldest of three boys. His parents, Solomon and Hazel, later moved the family to upstate Amenia, where Gerry Holzman attended elementary and high school.

After studying at Brooklyn College, he transferred to the University at Albany, graduating with a teaching degree in 1954. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he served as a radio operator in posts that included Ethiopia and Eritrea, his family said. Afterward, he returned to his college and in 1959 earned a master’s degree in humanities.

Holzman, who had married Arlene Davidson two years earlier, moved to Long Island, living primarily in Islip, and began his education career at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach. He would move on to Plainedge High School in North Massapequa, Bay Shore High School and Hauppauge High School, where he chaired its social studies department.

Gerry Holzman, a longtime Long Island teacher and master woodcarver,...

Gerry Holzman, a longtime Long Island teacher and master woodcarver, spearheaded the creation of the Empire State Carousel. Credit: Susan Gatti

A progressive educator, “he did several things that irritated” some parents, said his wife, Arlene Davidson Holzman, 91, chuckling. “He hired the first Black teacher in Hauppauge. He did an exchange with [the then predominantly minority] Bay Shore High School, so that kids from each school could shadow each other for a day and learn about each other's worlds.”

In 1972, his defense of a teacher who had discussed population control, including birth control, as part of a lesson led to the school board terminating Holzman. Some parents presented the board with a petition to reinstate him.

Choosing to leave, he became a teacher at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, spending years there and — having begun woodcarving in 1969 — serving at least one term as an artist-in-residence. Holzman also studied in England with master woodcarver Gino Masero.

By 1983, Holzman and a fellow teacher had begun work, including fundraising, on the Empire State Carousel, which they described as “the first full-size, hand-carved carousel made in America since the Depression.” The project went on for more than 20 years, with Holzman training some volunteers and welcoming experienced, unsung folk artists. “He was very concerned that these talented people working in their garages never get a light shined on them,” said his wife.

Holzman, who moved with his wife to Cambridge, New York, around 2010, wrote three books on wood carving: “Us Carvers” (2008), “The Empire State Carousel” (2011) and “Wanderings of a Wayward Woodcarver: Stories from a Life in Wood,” a memoir (2022). In 2018, the couple relocated to Maine to be near family.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Nancy Stegman of upstate Glens Falls and Jill Irving and Susan Gatti, both of Portland, Maine; six grandchildren; and a brother, Larry Holzman of upstate Woodstock. His youngest brother, Steve Holzman, predeceased him.

A memorial service will be held at a later date in Maine. Donations in Holzman’s memory can be made to CHANS Home Health & Hospice of Brunswick, Maine, “or your local hospice, food bank, or arts organization,” a family statement said.

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