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Friends, fans raise money for grave marker for "singing preacher"

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

By TERRI JO RYAN

Waco Tribune-Herald

WACO, Texas -- Deposited in a humble patch of soil at Waco Memorial Park, unacknowledged save for a few sentimental souls who collect his records, are the earthly remains of Jack Holcomb, "the singing preacher" of 1950s fame.

Now a handful of local fans in Central Texas are conspiring to collect enough money for a suitable brass grave marker to keep their musical hero from sinking into complete obscurity.

The musician and Waco native, ordained as the Rev. Harold Jackson Holcomb, died 35 years ago at age 46 after performing at a revival service in Dallas.

He battled heart disease for a decade before his death, and the illness sapped every penny of the family's meager savings, his widow recalls.

Ellen Holcomb, 83, said that she is deeply touched by the "kindness of strangers," the men who want to raise funds to purchase a marker for her late husband.

"I think that it is absolutely wonderful that these people would even think about remembering Jack this way," said his widow, who has lived in Austin for almost 30 years. "It's very, very sweet of them."

Holcomb is buried to the left of his daughter, Jo Ellen, who died at age 18 months because of a fall from her high chair. She died only days before the infamous Waco tornado struck on May 11, 1953, and her body was lost for a time in the ruins of the demolished funeral home.

The toddler was eventually found at the cemetery, where people aiding in the tornado cleanup had brought all corpses they'd found, Ellen Holcomb said.

Today Jo Ellen's grave is marked but "the singing preacher" later buried alongside her has not even the slightest stone to commemorate his existence.

The Jack Holcomb Fund at Parkview Baptist Church in Waco has been established to collect an estimated $2,500 to make a plate for not only the late singer's grave but for his wife to join him someday.

The Rev. John Collier, Parkview pastor, and Roger Olson, theology professor for the George W. Truett Seminary at Baylor University, are coordinating the effort.

Olson, 51, has a sweet spot for the tender tenor who sang "with a tear in his voice."

To hear yet more of the old-time religious music of his youth, Olson has done battle on the Internet auction site eBay, vying for rare recordings of the Southern gospel great.

Plenty of those recordings exist, too, including "Jack Holcomb Sings" (1955), "I Hear a Song in My Heart" (1957), "I Asked the Lord" (1960), and, on RCA in 1963, "Mr. Gospel."

An Iowa native, Olson has been in Waco almost four years. He says he was delighted to move to the hometown of his father's favorite sacred singer. But he was also shocked to discover the performer who had a national following for more than 15 years rested in peace anonymously.

"He's practically forgotten, but he can't have been totally forgotten, because people get into bidding wars for his records on eBay," Olson said. "The man's got devotees."

The scratchy, low-tech records aren't up to modern standards, Olson admits, but that is part of their charm. They evoke the simple, churchy compositions known then as "inspirationals" or "sacred music," tunes pounded out in country chapels on simple instruments.

Jack Holcomb was a speaker and singer for the nationwide movement Youth for Christ, and he also performed on radio and television in Southern California for a preacher named Jack Shuler, an evangelist who was a contemporary of Billy Graham, Olson said.

Collier said Jack Holcomb, an Assembly of God preacher who recorded for Waco's Word label, "had an ability to sing from his heart to your heart. His walk with the Lord became a part of your walk with the Lord."

Holcomb's sister, Virginia Watson, worshipped at Parkview until her death in 2001, Collier said.

Ellen Holcomb said that at the time of her husband's death in 1968 she had a son, 14-year-old Jack Jr., and an adopted daughter, 8-year-old Joi Kim, so she had to work two or three jobs just to pay bills. She didn't have the money for a grave marker then, but her husband would have approved of her placing the needs of the living above a duty to the dead.

"I had to take care of the kiddoes," she said.

She worked for the Texas Retail Grocery Association and was eventually named manager of its coupon redemption center. She worked in a store nights and weekends, and assumed typing chores in her spare time.

"God has been kind. We made it," she said. "And we never had to go on welfare. God has been very gracious to us."

Jack Holcomb's last album cover, "For Dearest to my Heart," showed him with his son, Jackie, who later graduated from Baylor Law School. This album was made just three weeks before his death.

Jackie was afflicted with juvenile diabetes at age 18. Nonetheless, he practiced as a trial attorney for many years until he was incapacitated by two strokes and a coronary triple bypass at age 46. He has lived in his mother's care for four years now.

Olson, who is trying to prompt a revival of interest in Jack Holcomb, said the man was known for breaking into song in the middle of a sermon or for injecting a sermon into a medley of songs. His emotionally evocative style, Olson said, was popular among evangelical Christians nationwide.

The Truett academic says that when he and other fans are ready to place the marker, he hopes to organize a musical religious service for the occasion featuring, naturally, the song stylings of Jack Holcomb.

Olson notes that many of Holcomb's albums and their songs employ "I" in the title, reflecting the emphasis in those days on a more personal relationship with the divine rather than a community salvation.

"This was the music of the poor, this was the music of the meek," Olson said. "Their hope was in heaven, not here."

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Distributed By The Associated Press

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