Monday, July 24, 2000

Holcomb left his mark on Butler Co. during long career

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Two women wiped tears from their eyes as one of them placed an arrangement of red and white carnations in front of John F. Holcomb's booth Sunday at the Butler County Fair.

        Within 30 minutes, six bouquets sat in front of the booth's closed green canvas flaps.

        The death Saturday of Mr. Holcomb, Butler County's longtime prosecutor, injected a note of sadness in the festive mood at the opening day of Butler's 150th county fair.

        “I remember how he was always willing to help others and he was always there for the kids,” said Joy Ann McWhorter, a secretary in his office.

        She and her sister, Sue Powers, also a secretary in the prosecutor's office, brought the arrangement of carnations to his booth to honor Mr. Holcomb's memory.

        Mr. Holcomb, who was prosecutor for 27 years, died of an apparent heart attack Saturday at River Downs racetrack in Anderson Township. Tom Riemar, an assistant fire chief in Anderson Township, said medics used a defibrillator and other advanced cardiac life-support measures, but they couldn't revive Mr. Holcomb.

        The 63-year-old Democrat was running for re-election against Republican Robin Piper, formerly an assistant prosecutor in Mr. Holcomb's office for 14 years.

        Mr. Piper's supporters had planned a high-profile presence at the fair, but suspended those plans in deference to Mr. Holcomb, said Joe Statzer, political director for the county's Republican Party.

        County Commissioner Chuck Furmon ordered American flags to be flown at half-staff in Mr. Holcomb's honor.

        The Butler County Democratic Party will name a replacement to serve the last five months of his term and the party also will name a candidate to run against Mr. Piper in the November election.

Campaign stress cited
        Mr. Holcomb nearly died four years ago when he suffered an aneurysm of his aorta. Although many people thought he would never return to work, he was back in his office five months later.

        The race against Mr. Piper had been a contentious one, and his son, John M. Holcomb, said the race took its toll on his father.

        “He was certainly very ill before the campaign started,” he said. “Nevertheless, I am certain that the viciousness with which his opponent attacked him did not do anything to improve his health.”

        Mr. Piper could not be reached for a response Sunday. But Mr. Statzer countered, “I had someone in the prosecutor's office tell me that this race did more to energize John Holcomb than anything has in the past couple years. We have respect for the fact that John ran the race as hard as he did, up until the end. That was the way John Holcomb did things.”

        Carlos Todd, chairman of the county Republican Party, said he and others who were concerned about Mr. Holcomb's frail health tried to dissuade him from campaigning.

        “I told him, "John, why don't you get out of the race? Your health is not good, and I don't know that you should put yourself through this,'” Mr. Todd said. “His response was: "I taught my kids how to live and now I'm guess I'm going to teach them how to die.' ... So perhaps John Holcomb did what he wanted to do.”

        Some county officials said they thought the prosecutor looked bad the past two weeks, but John M. Holcomb said his father had been feeling no worse than normal the past week.

        He said nothing seemed out of the ordinary the last two days of Mr. Holcomb's life.

        On Friday morning, the elder Mr. Holcomb discussed several important cases with his staff in his office. That afternoon, father and son discussed campaign strategies.

        The prosecutor spent Saturday morning and afternoon at his Hamilton home and went to the racetrack that afternoon with another son, Jeff, and Jeff's fiancee. He collapsed after the 10th race, John M. Holcomb said.

Democrat to the end
        John M. Holcomb, who has worked as an assistant prosecutor for his father, said Mr. Holcomb resisted overtures last year from Republican officials to switch to the dominant party in Butler County.

        “Our entire family,” he said, “is very proud that, in his ill condition, he would not succumb to the threat of his opponent and decided to go down fighting rather than compromise his integrity by switching to the Republican Party.”

        Mr. Holcomb, in an interview late last year, told a reporter: “When I die, I want to be buried in Chicago. That way, I can vote Democrat forever.”

        At the county fair Sunday, county officials remembered John F. Holcomb as a tough, talented prosecutor with a direct, blunt style.

        “John was his own man,” Butler County Commissioner Courtney Combs said. “He did his own thing, sometimes in a gruff manner.”

        He said he and Mr. Holcomb always shared a good working relationship despite differences of opinion.

        “I'll miss John,” he said. “It's a big loss for the county.”

        State Rep. Greg Jolivette, a Hamilton Republican who had once been a Democrat, recalled a particularly bitter argument he had with Mr. Holcomb about eight years ago.

        Feeling their relationship was shattered, Mr. Jolivette was stunned when a few days later, Mr. Holcomb sat next to him at a public event and chatted amiably.

        “I had thought he and I would never speak to each other again,” he said. “That incident showed me that he fought the fight when it needed to be fought, but when it was over, you were friends again.”

Ability drew praise
        Many people praised Mr. Holcomb's knowledge of the law and his abilities as a courtroom attorney.

        Daniel Kimble of Hanover Township stood watching as someone placed flowers in front of Mr. Holcomb's booth at the fair Sunday. Mr. Kimble, a member of no political party, said he voted for Mr. Holcomb in every election he's been in.

        “He had a good record and has been a good prosecutor,” he said. “He didn't favor anybody. He just went by the rules.”

        John M. Holcomb said it was a thrill for him to be able to work with his father on a number of important cases.

        “Most people considered him to be one of the premier trial attorneys in this part of the state,” he said. “He was the best cross-examiner I've ever seen.”

        But the hardened prosecutor had a soft side that only his family and close friends saw.

        He and his wife, Judy, had four children and four grandchildren. His sons, John M., 35; Jeff, 28; and Andrew, 31, live in Hamilton. His daughter, Mary Ann, 32, lives in Cincinnati.

        The one positive feature of the health problems Mr. Holcomb suffered in recent years was that they forced the workaholic prosecutor to spend more time with his family, John M. Holcomb said. He especially enjoyed being with the grandchildren.

        “Having the chance to spend time with his four grandchildren,” he said, “made it all worthwhile.”

        Enquirer reporter Janice Morse contributed to this story.


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