SAN BERNARDINO - The city said farewell to one of its most prominent citizens Thursday.

The family and friends of former mayor W.R. "Bob" Holcomb gathered Thursday at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church to celebrate his 18 years in the mayor's office, his fight to maintain the independence of San Bernardino's water supply and devotion to his loved ones.

Holcomb was the son of another former mayor, Grant Holcomb, and great-grandson of pioneer William Holcomb, who discovered gold while hunting bear near modern-day Big Bear Lake.

The former mayor's ancestry reaches as far back as Valley Forge and the Mayflower, son William Winfield Holcomb said.

"He was a product of his heritage and we may not see his like again," William Winfield Holcomb said.

San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris speaks about the life and accomplishments of former Mayor Bob Holcomb at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in San
San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris speaks about the life and accomplishments of former Mayor Bob Holcomb at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in San Bernardino on Thursday. Holcomb died Nov. 29 of heart failure. (Khai Le Correspondent)
"For me, his greatest achievement was that he promoted and encouraged others to build a more civil society."

As eulogized by Rabbi Hillel Cohn, Holcomb was a living repository of local history, a pragmatist and a public figure who was unafraid to make controversial stands on issues ranging from water policy to civil rights.

"For like David, Bob took on the Goliaths more than once," Cohn said. "Bob Holcomb was a man of strength. A man of many accomplishments."

An avid hunter and fly-fisherman, Holcomb also didn't fit the mold of a slick politician, Cohn recalled.

"It would be inevitable that he would irritate, anger and perturb. He was not glib or smooth," Cohn said. "He was not rough around the edges, but completely."

The longest serving mayor in San Bernardino's history, Holcomb served in City Hall's top post from 1971 to 1985 and again from 1989 to 1993.

"If he were here to speak this morning, he would talk to us about our duty as civic leaders," current Mayor Pat Morris said to the day's mourners. "He would admonish us, in the spirit of the poet, (Maltbie Davenport Babcock) `Be strong. We are not here to play. To dream, to drift. We have hard work to do, and loads to lift."'

Holcomb's public life began well before his name ever appeared on a ballot. Born on March 1, 1922, in San Bernardino, Holcomb was one of the millions of his generation who grew up to begin adulthood in military uniforms.

Holcomb left studies at UC Berkeley to join the U.S. Army in October 1942. During his World War II service, Holcomb was stationed in England and flew bombing missions for the Army Air Forces in a B-17 campaign.

After the war, Holcomb married Pearl "Penny" Pennington in 1946 and then returned to Berkeley, graduating in 1949.

He continued his studies the other side of the San Francisco Bay and earned his law degree from UC Hastings College of the Law in 1950.

Holcomb's political life began when he led the opposition of San Bernardino's proposed affiliation with the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District.

Facing a phalanx of pro-merger forces in the city's political, business and media worlds, Holcomb and his allies created and distributed their own free newspaper to counter the opinions that then ruled the Sun-Telegram's editorial page.

Supporters of the merger claimed the city faced a terrible shortage of drinking water if the city did not gain access to MWD supplies from the Colorado River.

Holcomb's side won when city voters went to the polls in 1964, however, and his campaign is now credited with keeping the city's water supply in San Bernardino.

The mayor at the time, Donald G. "Bud" Mauldin soon thereafter appointed Holcomb to the city's water board. In this role, Holcomb is regarded as being instrumental in securing water rights needed to build Cal State San Bernardino.

The man started his mayoral career at a time when city firefighters carried shotguns on their trucks. Holcomb's admirers credited him with being able to make inroads with the Westside and minority communities whose voices were not previously heard at City Hall.

"He loved the Westside so much and he always wanted us to be included in everything," civil rights activist Frances Grice said. "I had a mentor in Bob Holcomb. That man taught me how to work the system. He also told me, `Don't bring me problems you aren't going to help me solve."'

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Bob Holcomb timeline

March 1, 1922: William Robert "Bob" Holcomb is born in San Bernardino.

1940: Graduates from San Bernardino High School.

Oct. 13, 1942: Enlists in the Army.

Oct. 26, 1945: Honorably discharged from the Army. While in the service, he was stationed in England and was a B-17 pilot with the 412th Bomb Squadron, 95th Bomb Group.

July 7, 1946: Marries Pearl "Penny" Pennington. The marriage produces four children, Jay (who died in 1977), William, Robert and Terri Lee.

June 16, 1949: Graduates from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in law. He then attends UC Hastings College of Law and earns his law degree in 1950. He practices law for 14 years before launching his political career.

1964: Leads and wins the fight to maintain the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District's independence from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District. He is appointed president of the Board of Water Commissioners on May 4, 1964.

1971: Begins serving as mayor of San Bernardino and holds the position until 1985. In 1989, Holcomb decides to run again and wins. He holds the position until 1993.

1981: San Bernardino becomes the first city west of the Mississippi River to have a larger-than-life statue dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. Holcomb was instrumental in the city's effort to have the statue erected.

Nov. 29, 2010: Dies of heart failure at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center in Loma Linda.

Staff report