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Shepherd Holcombe: A Passion For Hartford And Its History


December 17, 2012

Some families are peripatetic and don't stay physically close to grandparents, or even parents or the places where they grew up. In a country of immigrants, many do not even know where their ancestors first settled. But some people find themselves, generations later, closely connected to a place, its history, its people.

Shepherd Holcombe was one of those people.

"He had a very strong belief in the ethical traits of [the people] of Connecticut: independence and self-reliance," said his son, Shep Holcombe Jr.

More importantly, he wanted others to know about those people of Old Connecticut.

The Holcombe family traced its arrival to the American colonies to 1635, when Thomas Holcombe arrived in Windsor. The Holcombes were one of the founding families of Hartford and, in 1840, the family began living in a large house on Spring Street, now a parking lot behind the Hartford Insurance Co., west of the train station.

Shepherd Holcombe, who was born on June 12, 1921, grew up in that home, where six generations of his family had lived, and went to West Middle School.

A staunch booster of Hartford's history, Holcombe died Nov. 28, and he lived his entire life not more than a few miles from the family homestead on Spring Street. He was 91.

The insurance business ran in the family's veins Holcombe's grandfather, John M. Holcombe, was president of the Phoenix Mutual Insurance Co., and his father, Harold G. Holcombe Sr., had his own insurance agency.

Holcombe's mother was Ethel Percy Manson, and he had two older brothers.

As a child, Holcombe showed a strong interest and ability in mathematics, and when he asked his grandfather what he might do when he grew up, his grandfather suggested he become an actuary, like himself. Holcombe's path was set.

He went to Kingswood School and graduated from Loomis, then enrolled in Yale, but left in 1943 after only three years to join the Army Air Corps. The military sent him to New York University, where he studied meteorology, and then served as weather officer for a bombing group in southern Italy. He was awarded the Bronze Star.

After his discharge, Holcombe worked at what was then Connecticut General Insurance Co. from 1945 to 1968, ending up as head of the actuarial consulting department in Group Pensions. He left to start his own actuarial consulting company, Hooker & Holcombe, from which he retired in 1989.

Outside of office hours, Holcombe expressed his passion for the city of Hartford and the history of Connecticut. His forefathers had lived in the city when it was one of the most profitable in the country; his grandparents had dined with Mark Twain at the author's house on Farmington Avenue, and he knew the families that lived in some of the historical houses in Hartford, including the Isham sisters of High Street.

Holcombe took up the cause of restoring the Ancient Burying Ground, an effort begun by his grandmother, Emily Seymour Holcombe. The gravestones had been neglected, and many of them broken. She had raised $200,000 to repair the gravestones and clean up the graveyard, but half a century later there was still a lot of work to be done. There are about 6,000 bodies buried there, but only about 500 markers remain, many in deteriorated condition.

Holcombe became the president and then chairman of the restoration organization, and in 1994, together with William Hosley, he wrote a book about the Ancient Burying Ground. He also supported efforts to make the cemetery, the city's earliest historical site, better known, including a summer intern program that trained Hartford students to act as guides.

"He cherished the burying ground," said his daughter, Anne Holcombe. "It was the earliest historic site [in Hartford] with any substance."

Thinking about the 17th century made Holcombe realize how anachronistic it was to plant American flags at pre-Revolutionary War graves. When he was 90, he designed and had made a colonial flag that used old symbols and was more appropriate for the burying ground.

Holcombe was on the board of directors of the Old State House during the renovations of the early 1990s and underwrote the cost of the Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe Education Center, named for his grandmother. "It's a place where kids can go in, and has a real 3D feeling that draws you in," said his daughter, Anne.

Holcombe helped promote many of the institutions in Hartford, including the University of Hartford, where he attended contemporary art exhibits and the President's College.

"Shep wanted to better this place," Hosley said. "He viewed the material evidence of Hartford's past as its greatest asset and wanted others to love it and care for it."

Holcombe was a man of enthusiasm and excitement. A year ago, he and Hosley drove to Rhode Island to see a painting by Ellen Pomeroy, a 19th century Connecticut artist. It was a still life showing fruit, flowers and a copy of a page from the Hartford Courant.

"He was so excited," Hosley said.

Holcombe bought the painting, and looked forward to having a small dinner party to show off his acquisition and inspire others. "He wanted others to think about Hartford as a place with an art history," Hosley said. "He'd latch onto something, then beat the drum and try to get others to latch on."

Another one of Holcombe's favorite Hartford monuments was the Mark Twain House, where his grandparents had once been guests. When the house was built, a tall, elaborate sideboard was custom-designed for an alcove in the dining room, but when the Twains left in 1903, they held a large furniture sale, and a Massachusetts family bought the ornate piece.

Over the years, the family lent it to the Twain museum for various events, such as when historian Ken Burns filmed a series on Mark Twain, and the sideboard would be returned to the family when it had a wedding to celebrate.

When it became known that the owners might be willing to part with the sideboard, Holcombe quietly made that possible, and brought it to the Twain house. Today, the sideboard sits permanently in the dining room.

Although he was a member of the Twain House board of trustees, Holcombe volunteered for some of the tougher roles, like being the red-tied greeter at the front door during the winter holiday tour.

"He was extremely generous with his tie, his talents," said Lynn Lumsden, a friend. "He was a kind, giving person, but he was very modest about it."

He attended the events put on by the organizations he supported, and helped even with the more menial tasks.

Holcombe did not dress like a pin-striped executive; he had his own unique style. He wore tartan vests, bow ties of all colors, red holiday jackets and colorful pants. At a friend's 90th birthday party, he wore a white jump suit and a sombrero.

"He was colorful, "said Kate Steinway, executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society, where Holcombe had served as a board member. "He mixed and matched with a flair that was unique to Shep. He just enjoyed it."

Holcombe was married in 1945 to the former Catherine Smith, also a student in the NYU meteorology program, and they had three children. After a divorce, he married Betty Wiese McIlwaine, who predeceased him.

Holcombe died of natural causes in the same neighborhood where he had grown up. He is survived by his children Shep, Emily and Anne, and one grandchild.

Despite his strong attachment to the past, Holcombe was firmly rooted in the present.

"There was nothing old fashioned or starchy about him," Steinway said. "He was aware the world was changing, and understood that you needed to make what he valued appeal to other people."

Holcombe trod the line between reverence for the past and popularizing it for the future.

"You don't want to let [your family history] overwhelm you," said his son, Shep Jr. "It gives you a certain sense of responsibility."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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