C.W. Gusewell


Scarred by battle, Gary Holcombe heroically met demands of life on stage

It was our dogs that initiated the acquaintance.

I was at a veterinary clinic with my dear Brittany bird dog, Rufus, who was in a critical stage of what would be his final illness.

He was there at the same time, on that same day, with his German shorthair, Mitzi, for repair of an injury suffered in an unhappy encounter with a fence.

That man, whose friendship would much enrich the next 15 years of my life, was the immensely gifted actor and teacher Gary Holcombe, for many years a leading player on our city’s professional stages.

Until that encounter, we’d known one another only at a distance – I from his many performances with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and he from his longtime reading of my column.

It was a lucky meeting, for our range of shared interests was broad. The bond was immediate.

I couldn’t begin, now, to count the days we spent afield together – not so much for the bagging of quail as for watching the work of his Mitzi and Rufus’ two sons, Pete and Bear.

Those frosty autumn mornings and golden afternoons remain bright in memory still. Neither of us suspected, I believe, how relatively brief that fine interval in our lives would be.

Dogs age too quickly, and so do men.

I was in my 60s and beginning to have some limits in endurance. Gary, a full decade younger, was tolerant of my shortcomings.

Each year the rest stops were more frequent, but they were good opportunities for talk. Our political instincts were alike, and our histories contained some important similarities – important, at least, to us.

We both had been in the U.S. Army, both as officers and both qualified for parachute duty.

The difference – a significant one – was that I’d been a peacetime soldier, too young for the Korean conflict, too old for Vietnam. But he had served in combat in Vietnam, had suffered serious wounds, had lost comrades, still carried bits of metal in his body.

And he had come home with the same post-traumatic stress disorder that today afflicts so many returnees from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From time to time, depression overtook him. But his ability by force of will, in spite of those setbacks, to meet with distinction the demands of so full a creative life can only be described as heroism.

Elsewhere in this newspaper, there has been critical celebration of all that Gary Holcombe brought to the richness of dramatic art in our town.

Mine is only the comment of someone feeling much diminished by the loss this past week of an extraordinary and greatly valued friend.