Though not a native son, this year’s Cenla-ian of the Year honoree has called Central Louisiana home for nearly forty years. Over those decades, he has made significant and impactful contributions to his adopted home in a variety of ways, and perhaps at no time more so than over the last eighteen months as Cenla, the state, nation and world have faced down a once-in-a-generation pandemic. For his contributions to the arts as a painter, author and playwright, to the field of medicine and public health, the Cenla Focus editorial board is proud to honor Dr. David J. Holcombe as the 2021 Cenla-ian of the Year.
David Jeffrey Holcombe was born at UCSF hospital in San Francisco in 1949 to Kenneth and Virginia Holcombe. At the time of his birth, David’s father was studying dentistry and working alongside his father, a dentist in Oakland, California. After a few years, David’s immediate family left the Oakland area and moved to Walnut Creek, California, which he describes as “a lovely agricultural village at the time” in the East Bay. “I had a very idyllic childhood,” he recalls. “I had an excellent grammar school and high school.” His early education featured a unique quirk in the curriculum that would come to play a large role in guiding his future. “One of the curiosities about my high school is that I learned French,” Dr. Holcombe explains. “I started in the 7th grade and went all the way through high school.” Under the tutelage of Mademoiselle Johnson throughout his high school years, David and his classmates graduated as fluent French speakers.
He continued his education at the University of California, Davis, graduating in three years. “At the time, it was not as prestigious as it is now,” says Dr. Holcombe. “It was considered an agricultural school and was a no vehicle campus, so everything was done on bicycles.” From UC-Davis, David set his sights on studying medicine, like his father and grandfather. Despite graduating with high honors, the goal remained elusive as, at the time, medical schools valued a more intensely science-focused undergraduate course of study rather than the more broad, liberal arts education he’d received, which included the basic sciences, but also Russian literature, Russian history, creative writing, fine art, ceramics, printmaking and more. “They wanted the biochemistry major who had spent all their summers in the lab,” he recalls. “I was a little too eccentric for med school at that time.” Instead, David transferred to the University of Florida to complete graduate study in Poultry Science, becoming a specialist in poultry nutrition.
Throughout his graduate study, he would continue to apply to medical school each year, each time encountering the same rejection over his unusual academic background. Undaunted and dedicated to his chosen career path, he decided to think beyond the borders of the United States, applying to medical schools in Europe. He was accepted at the Catholic University of Leuven Medical School in Brussels, Belgium, into their seven year course of study. “I was given a year off because I had a masters degree,” Dr. Holcombe recalls. There was a catch—the entire course of study would be in French. “I went for it.”
Unlike in the United States, European med schools utilize a pyramidal system. “They start with 1,000 students and end up at 200-250 after seven years,” explains Dr. Holcombe. Almost all of the exams were oral. Students were required to master tremendous amounts of medical information towards an exam that consisted of just two oral questions—pass or fail. “It was a very challenging way to study,” he recalls. “I couldn’t afford to repeat any years, so I was determined to succeed.” In the end, his persistence paid off as David became Dr. David Holcombe, graduating summa cum laude, fifth in his class, in French, in Belgium. “I owe a great debt to Mademoiselle Johnson,” he chuckles, recalling his high school French teacher.
A long-time folk dancer and instructor from his time in California, Florida, and Baltimore, he offered classes in the Recreation Department at the Catholic University to earn some extra money while he studied. It was into one of these classes in 1980 that a young student named Nicole strolled. “At the time, she said, ‘That is the nicest guy. I can’t imagine how you could fight with him.’ Today she says, ‘Now I’ve learned’,” he light-heartedly recalls. Thus began a great partnership both on the dance floor and in life. The pair would later marry, having four sons—Renaud, Joffroi, Tanguy and Thibault—and four grandchildren.
Having continued painting through his undergraduate and graduate school years, David would sell paintings on the weekend for extra money. He painted one such work in appreciation for the country of Belgium and the opportunities it offered him. During a stay at the Catholic University hospital (and much to the surprise of his Belgian classmates), the then-King of Belgium, King Baudouin, summoned the artistic young medical student for a private audience. The two conversed in both English and French, with the young American concluding the conversation by saying, “Well, sire, if you’re ever in our neighborhood, please drop in for a beer. We’d love to have you.” With a hearty chuckle, Dr. Holcombe recalls, “The King laughed and said, ‘I’ll certainly keep that in mind.’”
After completing medical school, Dr. Holcombe was solicited to return to the U.S. through the renowned Johns Hopkins University in 1983. Though his unorthodox course of study had previously served as a hindrance, it now became an asset. “They knew that American medical students that were educated abroad had a solid education and were generally more mature,” he explains. He was placed in a very small clinic called the Wyman Park Clinic for his residency. Unlike their American-trained counterparts, students from Europe had comparatively little in-hospital training. “It was quite a shock,” he notes of the on-the-job learning curve. “I had to learn basics of hospital work that American students learned during medical school.” Through hard work and tenacity, he closed the experience gap and completed his residency.
With his formal education complete, the Holcombes shifted their focus to the future. He knew that he didn’t want to return to California or Florida, splitting the geographic distance and landing somewhat in the middle. “Nicole and I thought, ‘Okay, let’s go to Louisiana. Everyone speaks French; they must need doctors; it’ll be a perfect fit.’,” he recalls with a laugh. They arrived in 1986 to discover that, while the area certainly needed physicians, everyone does not, in fact, speak French. “My wife did not speak English when we came,” he recalls. “We always spoke French at home.” Nicole was faced with the task of learning English and also learning to drive. He jokingly describes her Driver’s Ed class as “all 15 1/2 year old boys and this adult lady with a really strong accent.” He was concerned about the culture shock for his beloved bride. “I figured Nicole would hate it here with no high culture, small town, and limited resources,” he recalls. To his pleasant surprise, he says, “She’s been happy since day one! In fact, I had more of a transition problem coming from the capital of Europe to the heart of Louisiana. In the end, it was actually a little harder on me!”
The Holcombes set about making a life for themselves and their family. Dr. Holcombe joined the staff at the Freedman Clinic in Alexandria, where he worked for twenty years, developing a substantial clientele of 3,400 patients. Though he had a thriving practice, the call schedule, the legal and administrative challenges, and a desire to positively benefit the wider community led to a lot of soul searching. The then-Medical Director of the Office of Public Health, Dr. Naponick, a longtime friend and fellow French speaker, reached out to discuss his potential retirement. Knowing of his interest in public health, Dr. Naponick suggested that Dr. Holcombe step into the role. Reluctant to depart his successful practice, Dr. Holcombe hedged a bit, suggesting it might be a good fit a few years down the line. He was met with a startling response. “He said, ‘I’m leaving for Cambodia in two weeks. You take it or you leave it’,” Dr. Holcombe laughs. He took the leap and departed private practice for the Office of Public Health. “I had 3,400 unhappy people in Alexandria, who eventually realized that I was not abandoning them, but simply transitioning to a different kind of public service,” he explains. “It’s taken 14 years, but most of them have reconciled.”
In the most normal of times, the work of the Office of Public Health (OPH) is wide ranging and keeps Dr. Holcombe very busy. In Region 6—which serves Avoyelles, Catahoula, Concordia, Grant, LaSalle, Rapides, Vernon, and Winn parishes—OPH offers a lot of direct care, which is unusual in most other areas of the country. The office provides 10 % to 15% of all reproductive health needs and STD treatments in the area. Likewise, the office provides approximately 10% of all vaccinations that are given in the region. Moreover, the office is the only agency for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in the region.
In addition to the direct care provided, the other core function of the Office of Public Health is to provide for disaster preparedness. Just as he arrived to the OPH, construction on the Megashelter adjacent to LSUA was being completed. This means that his office maintains responsibility for administering the medical special needs shelter and medical evacuation transportation. Of the disaster preparedness work, Dr. Holcombe says, “It’s episodic, but enormous. We had four hurricanes in the middle of the pandemic. The shelter was activated for 76 days and nights. That is unheard of since Hurricane Katrina.”
Dr. Holcombe also serves as the public face of the Office of Public Health in Region 6. In addition to his monthly contributions to Cenla Focus which serve to education the public on varying aspects of public health, he is also available for interviews and to provide information for the news and other outlets across various media. It’s a part of the job that has become constant in the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic.
“COVID has sort of swept away attention from previously more focused areas and ongoing administrative functions,” says Dr. Holcombe. While it would be easy to become overwhelmed, he is quick to credit the successes of the Office to the hard work and support of his staff. “COVID has been horrendous,” he exclaims. “It has elevated public health to a level it’s never been before. This has been a really heavy lift, and I couldn’t have done it without my whole department.” He credits excellent relationships with collaborators, subordinates, and organizations like the Louisiana National Guard, the Rapides Foundation, the United Way, the Community Coalition, the Homeless Coalition, CLASS and more as instrumental in meeting the public health needs of the community in the midst of the pandemic.
Dr. Holcombe continues to stress the importance of widespread vaccination in getting ahead of the pandemic. “We hit a brick wall” in terms of vaccine hesitancy, he explains, despite the proven safety and efficacy of the available vaccines. “It’s the fear factor—the fear of the unknown, of fertility concerns, government control, long-term effects. It almost always boils down to a fear of loss of control and anxiety.” The Office of Public Health has given over 23,000 vaccines in Central Louisiana. Despite this on-going effort, joined by local doctors, pharmacies, hospitals, urgent cares and other providers, we have only achieved 24% vaccination rates in Central Louisiana. “Going back to school, perhaps without mask mandates, represents a perfect storm for the transmission of COVID and the development of new and more deadly variants,” says Dr. Holcombe. And if the pandemic wasn’t enough, Central Louisiana is also in the midst of concurrent outbreaks of syphilis and increased opioid abuse and overdose. Dr. Holcombe and his team at OPH continue to work tirelessly to meet these multifaceted challenges on several different fronts.
Dr. Holcombe finds respite from addressing the challenges confronting public health through his engagement with the arts. If he got his interest in medicine from his father, he inherited his love of the arts from his mother, who was a painter (he proudly displays her self-portrait in his office at OPH). His great-uncle, Ely Harvey, was a sculptor of some renown. He is the artist responsible for the elk that stands in Greenwood Cemetery at the end of Canal Boulevard in New Orleans. David’s mother enrolled him in a drawing class where, at the tender age of 13, he began to sketch the human form from live models. His passion for the visual arts continues to this day.
As a painter, Dr. Holcombe has a distinctive style. During medical school, he painted in mostly watercolors, due to the high price of other media. Currently, he paints primarily acrylics on canvas. His paintings are included in collections all over the United States and Europe. As described in his “Vision and Visionary” collection that was exhibited at River Oaks Arts Square Arts Center in 2010, he “chooses subjects from our daily existence. Certain themes, such as social violence, war and politics remain constant inspirations.” He explains, “If you look at them in whole, they are an illustration of a whole time, period and place. In part, they’re cathartic, but they’re also social commentaries.” He also includes portraits which commemorate people who have contributed to the world, whether they be local and contemporary or far away and from another time.
He further channels his creative energy as an author and playwright. The author of thirteen books and fourteen staged plays, his works feature modern or local themes and seek to incorporate rich contextual content. His written works are included in the rare book collection of the Northwestern State University Library archives. “Those aren’t rare; they’re just unpopular,” Nicole playfully chides her husband. “She’s kept my feet on the ground for decades,” he laughs.
Both Dr. Holcombe and Nicole are dedicated and passionate patrons of the arts in Central Louisiana. They actively collect local artists, known and unknown. Their collection has been featured at Louisiana College, and the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College in Shreveport. Over the years, Nicole has taught hundreds of students the Ukranian Easter tradition of creating beautiful, ornately decorated pysanky eggs. The pair hearkened back to their first meeting when they were introduced to the Czech community of Central Louisiana by way of 25 years of teaching traditional folk dancing, the only organized folk dancing in the state of Louisiana outside of New Orleans. And for 10 years, the Holcombes presented the International Piano Competition, bringing world-class talented pianists from all over the globe to Central Louisiana.
The Holcombes have sought to leave a lasting impact on their adopted home. They are proud benefactors of several arts organizations throughout the community and have made generous contributions to scholarship funds at local universities. Dr. Holcombe has a straightforward philosophy on Cenla: “This is the kind of community where if you see what you can bring TO the community, you’ll be happy. If you’re looking to take something FROM the community, you probably won’t be satisfied.” There can be no wonder that, with all their invaluable ongoing contributions to the health and vitality of Cenla, the Holcombes have found happiness here. “It’s been very gratifying,” he explains. “Hopefully, they’ll go on well after we’re history.”