I started working with Holly Clegg almost 20 years ago, when she became the spokesperson for the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission and needed help writing her press releases. Like everything else in life, Holly took this role seriously and embraced the simple sweet potato with passion. She believed in it, and she wanted you to believe in it too. Holly created tasty recipes using this root vegetable, promoted Louisiana sweet potatoes fervently whenever interviewed on television (which was often) and included it in her cookbooks. She was all in.
One thing I quickly learned: Holly Clegg is always all in.
Which is why I was not surprised that she attacked her diagnosis last summer of stomach cancer with verve. Like everyone else who has come to love Holly, I was devastated to learn that she—healthy Holly—had such a ridiculous disease. Stomach cancer, seriously? She’s a chef, for crying out loud! But instead of retreating into the shadows to lick her wounds, Holly put on her lipstick, fixed her hair and quickly took to social media to keep her friends and fans encouraged and informed of her status.
“What you see is what you get with me,” she said recently, explaining her transparency. “I would feel like I was lying if I wasn’t sharing the truth.”
Even when her situation—instead of improving—took a turn for the worse, she didn’t shy away from the truth. On June 20, Holly informed her thousands of followers that the cancer had spread, was terminal, and she was shifting from the hospital into hospice care. For many, it was a sudden shock.
“She’s my hero,” says Curtis Chastain, internal medicine physician and co-author of the cookbook Guy’s Guide to Eating Well with Holly. “I would like to believe that I’d be that strong and that upbeat, given the same situation.”
Chastain quickly came up with a plan to host a benefit to raise money for the Holly Clegg Gastric Cancer Research Fund at MD Anderson that her family created. On August 1, a sold-out crowd at the Varsity Theatre got to pay tribute to Holly Clegg, who flew in from Dallas—on hospice—to hand a check of $165,000 to Dr. Brian Badgwell of MD Anderson. She was all smiles. She informed the crowd of the mantra she took on when entering hospice: Now is the time to keep living. Now is not the time to start dying.
“Here we are thinking we are helping Holly Clegg,” says Chastain. “But she’s helped us see that she is challenging us. Challenging us to live every day.”
Holly’s cookbooks will continue to be sold after she is no longer with us, but it is her passion, vision and tenacity that will live on the hearts and minds of those whose lives she’s touched. And she’s touched us all—whether by encouraging us to stay active, cook at home, or incorporate local ingredients into everyday meals. Even sweet potatoes.
“I want to leave people with the belief that you can do anything you want to do. You really can,” said Holly, right before going onstage at the Varsity with the check. She smiled. “Now, it’s too late for me. But if you still have breath, keep living.”