Detail of a denim quilt displayed at
the memorial service for Mr. Holcombe
(photo: Andrea Kane)
I cannot think of Jeff without thinking of how much he loved people, loved to know what his friends were doing and what their current “story” was. Every time we would see each other after a period of absence it would be “PQ, how the heck are ya? What are you doing? Come sit down and give me the scoop!” As full of friends as his life was, and as full of interesting things, he always started with wanting to know what YOU were doing. And then he would wrap in whoever else was with you, and then he would recall some wonderful time you had enjoyed with him, and how much it meant, and then he was ready for another story…
And so started each adventure with Jeff, whether to a movie, a meal, or one of his legendary ski trips. Even rehearsals often started with individual check-ins by Jeff with his cast and assistant directors, or the inimitable John Lucs, who first made himself indispensable when still a student of Jeff’s and was his backstage alter-ego. These greetings were more lengthy and animated when Jeff was in the cast rather than the director, a situation I happily found myself in a few times. The clearest memory I have is of Jeff playing Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins many years ago, and there was a young-er Chuck Worthington admonishing him for not paying attention.
Jeff was a very good storyteller, and you’d hear a lot of that in his classes. Stories of shows, actors, actresses and strategies that worked, and stories of shows, actors, actresses and strategies that flopped. But his favorite stories always had a lesson, and it was usually both a reminder of something that had been important for him to learn, and a lesson for his present audience. And often he would tell stories for a group that were in his mind evidence of some quality of yours that he appreciated and wanted to celebrate. “Let me tell you a story about what Frank did that was just amazing!” And off he went. He did not like stories told at someone’s expense, and he would put a quick end to such stories. Only people who had been purposefully cruel to others were permitted to be objects of stories about how not to behave.
His story-telling made him a natural teacher. And as an acting and public speaking teacher he was in the business of teaching people how to tell a story well. As a bit actor who had the privilege of being directed by Jeff a few times, I would say he was a very forgiving director who relied heavily on casting a number of people in roles that did not require a lot of acting – and then a few in roles that required a lot of work. I think his theory was that if the role were close, the person was likely to succeed, and if the person put unusual effort into it, he or she would soar. While Harry wanted everyone to soar, he was intent on making it hard for anyone to fail.
To be directed by Jeff was to work through your own character development with his occasional exemplary redirections. So, if he wanted more “gravitas” you would get a dose of Jeff the President of the United States. If he wanted more playfulness you’d be greeted with Jeff as Dick Van Dyke. If you needed to cry, he’d perform some great Biblical wailing and gnashing of teeth scene. He’d pick the exaggeration and perform it for you. He was not a subtle director, but neither was he ever unclear.
Jeff was also proud of the change he encouraged at Peddie outside of theater and outside of each student's own journey to develop him or herself. His support of the Gay-Straight Alliance in its early stages was strong and instrumental. He was not alone in this effort, but because he was known to be a fair-minded and selfless person, and because his example was the appeal rather than any pressured recruiting campaign, Jeff’s presence throughout the last 20 years of his Peddie career helped give GSA the broad-based support it enjoys now. He proudly remembers getting students and some faculty to make annual participation on the AIDS Walk a priority.
The most consistent lesson Peddie students and faculty learned from Jeff over 45 years was to be honest and to be happy in our own skin. How could you not learn to be comfortable being yourself from a man who was comfortable in the most colorful and over-the-top assortment of clothing and accessories outside of a bolo tie, boots, and belt-buckle convention? In fact, as he was giving me directions for the length and nature of this eulogy, he mentioned that he was proudest of the way he had helped his students develop their skills so “they shined like highly polished silver.” As I have thought about that simile over the past few weeks, I think what is most characteristic is the pride he took in his students rather than in his own influence on them.
And his students knew that and appreciated it. Among the many, many tributes I have read on Facebook or which have come directly, the common theme of love and gratitude for believing in each author was overwhelming. People remember that Jeff was perpetually in their corner as long as they were making a sincere effort. At times when they doubted themselves, he took the energy of doubt and helped make it fuel each student’s triumph. One alumnus summed his feelings up this way:
I rejoice in the fact that I was fortunate to have been touched by him.
I rejoice in the fact that he took time to spread his 'fairy dust' all over me – and I’m a better man because of that.
So many stories. Jeff the movie-goer who often fell asleep during the movie, but did not hesitate to rave about how much he liked it! Jeff the maker of nick-names with the most sonorous quality – at least to his ears. Jeff the collector of so much stuff, and always able to tell you where and when he found each item!
We share so many vivid and happy memories of Jeff Holcombe that we need not fear we will run out of them, or that he will be forgotten. The work of a great teacher is among the most enduring monuments on earth, for each student carries the lessons for a lifetime, along the way passing them on to yet another generation. We each carry Jeff with us in happiness and gratitude! Jeff’s wish for this day was that we “leave sadness and tears behind; laughter and good times are here.”
I will end my remarks with this excerpt from the well-known poem “Death Is Nothing at All,” by Henry Scott-Holland.