Robert “Bob” Holcomb was born on October 9, 1924, in Woodburn, Oregon. The second of two boys, Bob was also a second generation Oregonian. Bob started his schooling in Woodburn, and moved with his family to Philomath in 1935. In 1939, the family moved to Toledo, where Bob graduated from Toledo High School in 1943. Billie Shepherd was born in Toledo, Oregon, April 14, 1925, the daughter of Jim and Bertha Porter Shepherd. She and Bob met at Toledo High School and graduated the same year. Billie remained in Toledo, working for the Title and Trust Company, while Bob enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Bob became a bombardiering officer on a B-24 bomber with the 15th Air Force in Italy. In March 1945, his plane was one of thirty-one bombers lost in a massive raid on a German steel mill at Linz, Austria. His crippled plane crash landed in the Russian-held territory of Hungary. For six weeks the crew lived with the Russian army. He and his crew were listed officially as missing in action.
The crew worked their way to Budapest, Hungary, where they made contact with a search and rescue team. Once again under American control, the commanding officer of the team radioed the Air Force in Italy that the crew was safe, and in a matter of hours a DC-3 airplane arrived and flew them back to their base in Italy. Unaware of it at the time, the pilot of that airplane would be a future Corvallis resident, former Brigadier General Frank Gillespie, now deceased.
On a short leave after the war, Bob and Billie were married on August 20, 1945, in Vancouver, Washington. They started their marriage in Santa Ana, California, where they stayed until his discharge later that year. The next five and one-half years were spent at Pacific University in Forest Grove, where Bob finished his Bachelor of Science degree in 1950 and was granted a Doctor of Optometry degree in 1951. Bob was president of the student body during the centennial-year celebration of Pacific University, and was made a member of Blue Key national honor society. Billie worked as the manager of the Pacific University Bookstore for four years, until their first child Linda came along in 1950. Their son Larry was born in 1953.
Dr. Holcomb started his practice of optometry in Eugene in 1951, but very soon moved to Corvallis. In 1959, Bob built the Holcomb Building at Harrison and Fifteenth Street, with space for six professional offices, including his own. The Holcombs built their house on a bare ten-acre hillside in 1965. It originally had only thirteen oak trees, but in the ensuing years they planted trees and dug ponds and created a beautiful park setting in which to raise their children. Bob retired from his pratice of optometry in 1992.
Bob’s professional associations include the Oregon Optometric Association, the American Optometric Association, and the Willamette Optometric Society. He served as vice president for the Vision Conservation Institute of the Northwest, and he received the President’s Award from the Oregon Optometric Association in 1963 for his efforts concerning legislation that became law while he was Chairman of the State and Federal Affairs Committee for that Association.
In 1956, Bob held the position of Exalted Ruler of the Elks in Corvallis and served as chairman of the trustees when the new lodge was built in North Corvallis. A member of Corvallis Rotary, he served as president in 1980-81 and was selected to be a District Governor of Rotary International in 1986-87. Bob served as one of 446 governors worldwide on a campaign to raise the funds needed to buy all the vaccine needed to rid the world of polio. The goal was to raise more than $500 million by 2005, making it the largest private fundraising project in history. Bob’s district raised $1 million of that total.
“What I’m proudest of in Rotary is having helped start a training program for incoming presidents,” Bob recalls. The President-Elect Training Seminar (PETS) is now the largest training program in Rotary anywhere in the world. Each year, a three-day meeting draws more than five hundred incoming Rotary presidents each spring. “We like to teach them leadership skills, and we bring in a variety of speakers. The program covers Alaska, Western Canada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Northern California. We’ve trained more than seven thousand Rotary presidents since the program began.” Bob represented the president of Rotary International at district conferences in Canada, Washington, and Arkansas.
As a past governor of his Rotary District, Bob established the groundwork for a group of ophthalmologists and optometrists to travel to Ecuador for a two-week Eye Camp. The team conducted thousands of exams and eye operations as part of Rotary’s world community service efforts.
One of the doctors in the team returned with a story about a young boy who was fitted with thick lenses that finally enabled him to see. Days later, the doctors saw the boy again but he didn’t have his glasses. When asked why, the boy said he had sold them to buy food. “It’s funny how you can overlook something that is even more basic than helping someone to see,” Bob mused. “I’ve been involved with the kind of emotions involved in helping someone to able to see. But in this case, the child’s needs were even more basic—survival.”
Bob has also been a member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Beaver Club, Masonic Lodge, Al Kader Shrine Temple, and the Order of the Antelope, serving as its president in 1982. He served on the board of directors of Pacific Continental Bank in Eugene and was a senior partner in Berjac Financial. Bob joined the BCF board of directors in 1968. He was elected vice president the same year and served as president in 1969-70.
His main hobby in retirement besides his family and home, has been a lifelong continuation of exploring Western American history. He served as vice president and president of the Oregon Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Bob was involved with raising funds to build interpretive centers along the trail and getting support for scholars to write about its history. He worked to get the state chapter to take on promoting the historical gravesite of Sacajawea’s son, Jon Baptist Charbonneau, in the Jordan Valley of Eastern Oregon. Bob and Billie had visited the gravesite and seen its dilapidated condition. His “Winning of the West and the Humor of It All!” presentations on the“banquet circuit” have been heard by many audiences throughout Oregon, Washington, and California.
Billie served as president of the Ladies Auxiliary for the Willamette Valley Chapter Optometric Association. She has served with the Assistance League of Corvallis and has been a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her interest in genealogy began in 1980, when she wanted to learn more about some watches that had belonged to her father. She researched Bob’s history for his induction into the Sons of the American Revolution. His ancestors included some Puritans who came from England in the early 1600s and helped start Windsor, Connecticut. For membership in both the DAR and the SAR, you have to prove every generation from the current year back to the time of the revolution. Billie also found a number of ways to express her creativity. Her talents include painting, cross stitch, needlepoint, stained glass, and many other kinds of crafts.
As active promoters of BCF, Bob and Billie decided to do something a little different when they established a named fund. There were already a number of funds providing scholarships to attend college, but they wanted to honor those young kids who had accomplished significant character deeds but whose kind works too often go unnoticed. The scholarship is awarded to youth aged 8 to 18 who have demonstrated exceptional acts of courage, bravery, and/or altruism by their personal actions
Three recipients shared the first Holcomb Hall of Fame Award. According to an article in the Corvallis Gazette-Times, three Crescent Valley High School students—Tira Heartsong, Sofia Pospisil, and Jake Pratt—were on their way home from school when they saw a car on fire. They stopped to try to put out the fire, then helped the car’s owner save his belongings from the burning car and escorted him to safety.
“Those three kids chose to do something right,” Bob said. “We want to recognize those kinds of individuals. The press carries everything that is wrong with kids. We don’t get enough attention on the kids who have character or accomplish something.”
The Bob & Billie Holcomb Family Youth Hall of Fame Fund also annually funds a scholarship to the recipient of the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis Youth of the Year award.