Some families are peripatetic and don't stay physically close to grandparents, or even parents or the places where they grew up. In a country of immigrants, many do not even know where their ancestors first settled. But some people find themselves, generations later, closely connected to a place, its history, its people.
Shepherd Holcombe was one of those people.
"He had a very strong belief in the ethical traits of [the people] of Connecticut: independence and self-reliance," said his son, Shep Holcombe Jr.
More importantly, he wanted others to know about those people of Old Connecticut.
The Holcombe family traced its arrival to the American colonies to 1635, when Thomas Holcombe arrived in Windsor. The Holcombes were one of the founding families of Hartford and, in 1840, the family began living in a large house on Spring Street, now a parking lot behind the Hartford Insurance Co., west of the train station.
Shepherd Holcombe, who was born on June 12, 1921, grew up in that home, where six generations of his family had lived, and went to West Middle School.
A staunch booster of Hartford's history, Holcombe died Nov. 28, and he lived his entire life not more than a few miles from the family homestead on Spring Street. He was 91.
The insurance business ran in the family's veins — Holcombe's grandfather, John M. Holcombe, was president of the Phoenix Mutual Insurance Co., and his father, Harold G. Holcombe Sr., had his own insurance agency.
Holcombe's mother was Ethel Percy Manson, and he had two older brothers.
As a child, Holcombe showed a strong interest and ability in mathematics, and when he asked his grandfather what he might do when he grew up, his grandfather suggested he become an actuary, like himself. Holcombe's path was set.
He went to Kingswood School and graduated from Loomis, then enrolled in Yale, but left in 1943 after only three years to join the Army Air Corps. The military sent him to New York University, where he studied meteorology, and then served as weather officer for a bombing group in southern Italy. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
After his discharge, Holcombe worked at what was then Connecticut General Insurance Co. from 1945 to 1968, ending up as head of the actuarial consulting department in Group Pensions. He left to start his own actuarial consulting company, Hooker & Holcombe, from which he retired in 1989.
Outside of office hours, Holcombe expressed his passion for the city of Hartford — and the history of Connecticut. His forefathers had lived in the city when it was one of the most profitable in the country; his grandparents had dined with Mark Twain at the author's house on Farmington Avenue, and he knew the families that lived in some of the historical houses in Hartford, including the Isham sisters of High Street.
Holcombe took up the cause of restoring the Ancient Burying Ground, an effort begun by his grandmother, Emily Seymour Holcombe. The gravestones had been neglected, and many of them broken. She had raised $200,000 to repair the gravestones and clean up the graveyard, but half a century later there was still a lot of work to be done. There are about 6,000 bodies buried there, but only about 500 markers remain, many in deteriorated condition.
Holcombe became the president and then chairman of the restoration organization, and in 1994, together with William Hosley, he wrote a book about the Ancient Burying Ground. He also supported efforts to make the cemetery, the city's earliest historical site, better known, including a summer intern program that trained Hartford students to act as guides.
"He cherished the burying ground," said his daughter, Anne Holcombe. "It was the earliest historic site [in Hartford] with any substance."
Thinking about the 17th century made Holcombe realize how anachronistic it was to plant American flags at pre-Revolutionary War graves. When he was 90, he designed and had made a colonial flag that used old symbols and was more appropriate for the burying ground.
Holcombe was on the board of directors of the Old State House during the renovations of the early 1990s and underwrote the cost of the Emily Seymour Goodwin Holcombe Education Center, named for his grandmother. "It's a place where kids can go in, and has a real 3D feeling that draws you in," said his daughter, Anne.
Holcombe helped promote many of the institutions in Hartford, including the University of Hartford, where he attended contemporary art exhibits and the President's College.
"Shep wanted to better this place," Hosley said. "He viewed the material evidence of Hartford's past as its greatest asset and wanted others to love it and care for it."