Donald Frank Holcomb, of Ithaca, died on August 9 in his residence in Kendal at Ithaca. He was 92.
Born in Chesterton, IN to Roger and Ethel Holcomb, he moved at an early age with his family to Wood River, IL. During his junior year at Wood River High School, he was captured by physics, beginning a lifelong passion and profession. He graduated in 1943 as class valedictorian. He entered DePauw University in 1943. Two years of service in the U.S. Navy, largely spent at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Alameda, CA delayed his graduation from DePauw until 1949. He continued on to graduate school at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana where he earned a Ph.D. in physics in 1954.
While at DePauw, during the spring of 1948 he met Barbara Page, “destined to be his life partner”, over a bridge table. They married in 1950 in her home town of River Forest, IL, beginning a loving marriage. In the summer of 1954, after completion of his Ph.D. in physics, they moved to Ithaca when he took a position in the Department of Physics at Cornell University, an association with Cornell that lasted over 60 years. He formally retired to the status of Professor Emeritus in 1995. They and their three children lived on Northview Road along with a number of other Cornell families; it was a home they kept for 40 years. Don and Barbara moved in 1996 to the Kendal Community in Ithaca which provided a comfortable home for them until her death in 1998, and for him in the following years.
His career at Cornell included a mix of research, teaching, physics course development, and general university service. His research interests were shared with 16 Cornell graduate students who completed Ph.D. work in his lab over the years, several post-doctoral associates, and colleagues from laboratories in Norway, Scotland, USSR, and South Africa. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also served as a NATO Senior Visiting Fellow in Oslo, Norway in 1962; as a Guggenheim Fellow at the University of Kent, UK in 1968-69; and as a Science Research Council Visiting fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1978. He served as chair of the Department of Physics from 1969-1974 and again in 1982-1986. He served as a faculty-elected member of the Cornell Board of Trustees during 1976-1981. His interest in improving the effectiveness of physics teaching led to co-authoring a physics textbook for non-science students with Philip Morrison, “My Father’s Watch”. It also led to a strong 30-year relationship with the American Association of Physics Teachers. He was president of the Association in 1987-88, and received its Oersted Medal in 1996 for “notable contributions to the teaching of physics”.
After moving to New York State, Don and his family developed a great love for the outdoors – camping, canoeing, hiking, and, above all, cross-country skiing. (They had discovered the joys of cross-country skiing during a sabbatical leave in Norway in 1962.) These provided great family experiences and participation remained an important part of his life until shortly before his death. He was an active and dedicated member of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca for over 60 years, serving as an ordained elder and nurturing his love of music as a longtime choir member, among other activities. He also sang with the Ithaca Community Chorus. He enjoyed travel, crossword puzzles and, in later years, attending grandchildren’s school and sporting activities.
In 2001, Ithaca hiking activities brought him together with Joan Bechhofer, another Kendal resident. They found many common interests and shared love and companionship through the rest of his life.
He is survived by three children and their spouses; Douglas Holcomb and wife Elizabeth of Morris Plains, NJ, Jane Bryant and husband Bill of Ithaca, NY, Nancy Miller and husband Jim of Ellicott City, MD; by six grandchildren, Stephanie Koroma (Sufyaan) of Fairfax, VA, Kelly Dunn of Arlington, VA, Andrew Dunn (Danielle) of New Haven, CT, Lindsey Bryant (Keelan) of Ithaca, NY, Tom Miller (Alaina) of Franklin, TN, and Page Pajak (Zach) of Columbia, MD; by great-grandchildren Mackenzie, Jaden, Evelyn, Lily, Christopher, Audrey, Mia, and Kam; several nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews; and by his companion Joan Bechhofer. He was a loving father, grandfather, uncle, and friend, and will be deeply missed by all.
A memorial service to celebrate his life will be held at the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca at 2:00 p.m., Saturday August 25. Those who wish to make a contribution in his memory can recognize the many wonderful staff who supported his life at Kendal and cared for him the past few years. For such a contribution (tax deductible), a check should be made out to “Kendal Residents Association”, with the memo line “Employee Appreciation Fund in memory of Don Holcomb” and mailed to Kendal at Ithaca, 2230 N. Triphammer Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850.
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