Despite kidney failure, ongoing dialysis and blindness, Don Holcombe hosted his own radio show, sang bass in a barbershop quartet and survived the death of his son six months ago.
On Feb. 10, the eve of his 60th birthday, Holcombe, an artist, singer, local-radio personality and community leader, died of complications from diabetes.
"He didn't seem as bad as he was," said his wife, Nancy. "We knew he was going to die; we didn't think it'd be now."
But that was Don Holcombe: he kept his good humor until the end.
He even hosted his show, Rim Country Forum, two days before his death.
"I talked to him a day or so before he died," Steve Bingham, president of KRIM-FM radio said. "He sounded very up, cheerful, but that was his nature no matter how bad things were, and they were terrible."
"He enjoyed life to the last minute," said his friend Ron Lodge. "He lived through hell for the last year and he never lost his spirit."
Don Holcombe was born Feb. 11, 1946 in Englewood, N.J.
As a young adult, Holcombe sailed the seas with the Navy, serving as a nuclear reactor operator on the USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Lifelong love affair
By the time his six-year stint in the Navy ended, Don and Nancy had fallen in love. She was a nursing student at Northwestern University in Illinois, and he, a barbershop quartet singer performing at her nursing program mixer.
"We met while he was still in the Navy," Nancy said. "He was singing. He was a little different. He had a Band-Aid on his head. He sang some solos and I was really impressed."
At a dance following the performance, Nancy and Don connected.
"I was flirting and wanted him to notice me," she said. "And he did, and we never danced with anyone else the rest of the night.
"I called my parents the next day and told them I had met the man I wanted to marry. He was nice looking, but he wasn't movie-star handsome. He was funny. He was bright. After he shipped out, we dated other people, but we always came back to each other."
Three years later, on Aug. 23, 1969, Nancy and Don married in Homer, Ill.
Move to Arizona
In 1973, the Holcombes moved to Phoenix where Don worked as a commercial artist. The couple had two sons: Rob, born in 1976, and Ken in 1981.
"We moved to Payson in 1983 to move the boys to a small town," Nancy said. "Don had always drawn and sketched and thought he wanted to try his hand at fine arts."
"He was incredibly dedicated and an outstanding artist before he went almost blind," Bingham said. "He was very talented and extremely well liked."
A talented artist
Holcombe painted people, animals and Western figures on stones, using the texture of the rock as the landscape.
Radio personality Paul Harvey took notice.
"We went to Paul Harvey's house and he had us go through his home, picking out places to put Don's art," Nancy said. "(Harvey) bought a number of pieces for his home and as gifts."
While art enthusiasts lauded Holcombe for his visual talents, music aficionados swooned to his barbershop melodies.
Lodge and Holcombe sang together in the local barbershop quartet, the Beeliners, and in the Phoenix-based Phoenician Chorus.
"Music gave him peace," Lodge said. "He loved to share it with other people."
And Holcombe loved being the host of KMOG's Rim Country Forum too.
"I knew it was something special," Dan Haapala said during a broadcast tribute to Holcombe Monday, Feb. 13.
"Don was a natural," Nancy added. "He had no real training."
A radio tribute
Calls poured into the station during Holcombe's tribute.
"I don't think there was anyone at the station more supportive than Don," one caller said. "We sure appreciated Don and we're going to miss him a lot."
In spite of his tenacity, Holcombe's denial of the severity of his condition, said Nancy, accelerated his decline.
"He didn't take his health seriously," said Nancy. "And that is a big lesson for everyone to learn.
"His father died when he was 48. I think he felt he had beaten a curse.
"I don't think he feared death more than he feared life," Lodge said. "He's such a wonderful spirit. He was my best friend. He still is. Don will live with me forever."