On Saturday, Feb. 27, hundreds of people filed through the old gym at the Seabury Center to say goodbye to a man who had spent countless hours there. Elvin Combs Hon ’81, better known as Mr. Combs or Mr. C around campus, died on Feb. 23 at age 92. Forty-one years of those years, from 1947 to 1988, spent as equipment manager for Berea College Athletics.
Mr. Combs was a humble man who never met a stranger and was loved by everyone who knew him, from the first-year student helping him clean jerseys to former Kentucky governors for whom he campaigned.
The sunny room where he spent most of the last five years of his life tells the story. At his home a few miles north of campus, the room is lined from floor to ceiling with hundreds of photos. Along the top are Mountaineer athletes in faded black-and-white publicity shots, their game faces frozen in time. Further down are team photos and snapshots of people from all walks of life. A closer look reveals autographed pictures of President Bill and Hillary Clinton, governors, senators, and other politicians.
According to Bette, his wife of 70 years, Elvin could put a name to all those faces and tell a story about each one. When a friend or former student stopped by to visit and Elvin didn’t have a photo of them on his wall, he would ask for a copy for his collection. Homecoming and Summer Reunion were busy times. Throughout the year he would get phone calls from alumni. The conversations were very similar, says Bette.
“Mr. C! I bet you can’t guess who this is.”
“I bet I can.”
“Surely not, it’s been too long. You couldn’t possibly remember me.”
But remember them he did. Not only their names, but also when they attended Berea, what sports they played and what awards they won.
Dr. Mike Johnson ’73 was an athlete, professor and coach during Mr. Combs’ career. A 35-year veteran of Berea athletics, the cross country and track coach has fond memories of long talks with his mentor. Mr. C was instrumental in getting him his job and was a close friend and grandfather figure to his children.
“If a student got in trouble, they called on Mr. Combs. He was such a good man, always trying to help and counsel students. Our students are unique and special and that’s the reason he stayed at the job,” said Johnson. Bette recalls how Mr. Combs kept a refrigerator stocked with snacks for hungry but cash-poor students who stopped in the “cage” (his tiny office) for advice. In that office he talked many students out of quitting school when the pressures of classes and work became too much. “I personally know of several young men who graduated because of his intervention,” says the Rev. Randy Osborne Hon ’95, retired campus minister and director of the Campus Christian Center.
Current Berea College Trustee and former board chair David Shelton ’69, a baseball player during his years as a student, formed a close friendship with Mr. Combs that endured many decades.
“There are numerous good reasons why so many of us continued until recently to journey out Highway 1016 to visit with Mr. Combs and Bette. These good reasons include his caring attitude, kindness, and genuine unforgettable concern for our lives as Berea College students.
He helped me through many trying issues as a young man during my first time away from home and was extremely influential in my needed adjustments to a path leading to graduation. I will truly miss him.”
Combs grew up in Happy, a tiny town in Perry County in Eastern Kentucky, where he was a coal miner until he decided soldiering would be easier. He served in World War II in Europe, returning in December 1945. He then married Bette, a native of a town near Buffalo, NY, whom he met during training, and they moved to Berea, where his family had settled when sister Faye began attending the Foundation School. The first year he worked as a painter at the College before he was hired as equipment manager.
Combs excelled in athletics. According to Johnson, he once beat an opposing team’s star free-throw shooter (ranked second in the nation) in an informal contest, hitting 50 shots in a row without a miss, shooting underhanded, “granny” style. When Osborne wanted to get in shape in his early years of teaching, he introduced himself to Combs, asking for advice. “He had a reputation for being the very best in squash, handball and racquetball,” says Osborne. The older man (Combs was 43 years old) introduced him to several sports, and they were doubles partners on the racquetball court for many years.
Combs’ comforting presence was a fixture at home athletic contests. The father of five (including Berea alumni John Combs ’69 and Edie Combs McCreary ’71) was always seen cheering on his Mountaineers wearing his Berea College jacket and blue “B” baseball cap. “He was proud of the men and women who had become such a large part of his life at the College,” recalled Osborne. Looking back now, those former students feel blessed to have been touched by this man’s life.
Barbie VanWinkle Mills ’80 worked under Elvin in the equipment room. “I looked forward to going to work at 7:30 a.m.,” she said, “because I knew he would be there with a smile on his face. He touched many lives.”
Arnold Stacy ’61 said “[he] immediately became a friend and mentor. He left a legacy that will never be surpassed. In my mind he was Mr. Berea College.”
“What a kind, gentle, and wise man,” remembers Mickey Wu ’75. “He was the reason I did not quit the soccer team out of frustration in my freshman year. He encouraged me, counseled patience and hard work. As usual, he was right. I cannot think of Berea without thinking about Mr. Combs.”