William Marvin Combes was born on September 13, 1941 in Rockville Centre, NY. The third and youngest child of Alice Louise Marvin (a homemaker and witty poet) and George Donald Combes (an intellectual who was fated to run the family hardware business). His mother called him “Billy,” and described him as full of boundless energy (he sounded very much like his own second son, my brother Wayne).
Unfortunately, Billy’s energy was curbed for a large part of his childhood by a serious bout of Rheumatic fever that began when he was 6 and had a relapse a few years later. The illness irreversibly weakened his heart and was one of the contributing factors of his illness and untimely passing at the age of 77. Ironically, despite having a weak heart, my father was known for his very BIG heart and for his vigor and, of course, for his unfailing sense of humor, which, as we witnessed, he retained into his very last hours.
Let me briefly tell the story of my father’s life through his own stories. The greatest adventure of his childhood occurred was when, at age 12, he moved out to Phoenix, Arizona, with his father. They’d done so because the weather was considered better for his father, who was suffering from the inevitable results of childhood diabetes. My Uncle David was already 18 and out of the house, and my grandmother and Aunt Nancy, who was a teenager, couldn’t stand life in Arizona, so they didn’t stay. Dad always remembered that year fondly, being able to be alone with his dad in a far away place during the last year of his father’s life. To give you an example of the impression it made, my father still remembered the roads and layout of the greater Phoenix area when he came back to visit me there nearly 50 years later.
After getting out of high school, Dad realized that he was going to have to go to college, having been rejected by the military due to his heart condition. His favorite uncle Richard, who had a lake house in New Hampshire, told my father about a school in New Hampshire that had “on site admission,” New England College. So Dad went to the “Only Henniker on Earth” to enroll in college. My grandmother was famously mortified that rural New Hampshire didn’t have a subway stop. By his own account, Dad spent more time partying than studying. This, coupled with the fact that he never acquired the knack for reading, was not a great recipe for scholastic success. He boasted that he graduated with his degree in Mathematics with what he believed to be the lowest graduating GPA ever recorded at New England College, having earned a 0.46 GPA in his final semester.
Dad came into some family money when he turned 21, so he did what any young person would do, he went off to Europe with a college friend. He told the story many times of remembering that one of his stepfather’s friends, whom my father drove to work along with his step-father for many years when dad was a teenager, was an executive at Cunard Lines. So, he contacted him and, through a series of events, ended up with two transatlantic tickets on the Queen Mary. When he and his friend boarded, there was a note in their tiny cabin that read “Do Not Unpack.” After the ship pulled out of port, they were upgraded to a luxury cabin suite several decks higher, and even spent one dinner in suit jackets at the bursar’s table.
Upon his return from Europe, Dad started graduate school at Keene State College and his love of partying paid off in spades. He attended a house party on 27 Main Street in Suncook, New Hampshire. There, he and met a beautiful, intelligent and adventurous college student named Ruth Beatrice Courtemanche. The rest, as they say, is history.
Dad’s first job out of grad school was as a time-study manager at a manufacturing plant of J. F. McElwain, which among other things owned the well-known brand Thom McCann shoes. Dad told the story of a young manager who came in above my dad in the organization who turned out to be completely unqualified for the job. Instead of conducting new time studies, Dad discovered that the guy went back through old files and republished old studies again and again. His boss, realizing that he would soon be discovered, fired my dad. And, what did my dad do? He said “You can’t fire ME” and kept going to work every day, as if nothing had happened. Eventually, it was the young manager was let go and things returned back to normal.
When the company announced plans to move production down south, my parents and my aunt Nancy decided to put together the money they had made from their small shares in a family building that had sold in Rockville Centre to buy a run-down farmhouse with 5 attached motel units and more than 50 acres in Vermont. They transformed this place into a charming destination that, for nearly 40 years, welcomed thousands of families from around the world and became a place where any member of the extended Combes Family was always welcomed with open arms and given a warm place to stay, a hearty meal, and the chance to share stories and memories.
When I was 11 or 12, my parents had to go out of town to attend a funeral of an old friend or colleague of my father’s. Upon his return back home, Dad was very quiet and seemed troubled so I asked him: ”Daddy, what’s wrong?” He answered: “Sharon, everyone said such wonderful things about my friend at his funeral that it makes me wonder what people will say about me when I am gone.”
These are the top 5 things I learned in 50 years with my father:
#5 – Be Informed. No matter how busy you are, always take 30 minutes out of every day to watch the news without interruption.
#4 – Be Adventurous. Whenever you get the chance, travel or try something new.
#3 – Be Dependable. If you make a commitment, always do your best to follow it through.
#2 – Your Family is the most important possession you will ever have.
And, finally the #1 thing I learned from 50 years with my father: Never, ever lose your sense of humor.
At his memorial service, Bill’s granddaughter, Ayla, gave a heartfelt performance of her original song, “Call Me.” You can enjoy this very poignant song at this link.
William “Bill” Combes of Ludlow, Vermont passed away peacefully on the morning of October 20, 2018, after a long illness. With his wife Ruth, Bill was the long time proprietor of the Combes Family Inn. He is survived by his wife, Ruth (Courtemanche) Combes; his three children, Bill Combes (Merilin) , Wayne Combes (Maria), and Sharon Combes-Farr (Bruce); his four grandchildren, Ayla Combes, Liam Combes, John Simmons, and Erin Farr; his two great grandchildren, Cash and Kylen Simmons; his brother (George) David Combes; his step-siblings Kathi Ogoreuc, Barbara Minarcik, and Alan Minarcik; and a large extended family, including several beloved nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his father, George Donald Combes, his mother, Alice (Marvin) Combes, and his sister, Nancy Louise Combes.