By Craig Smith
Mike Holcomb and I were on the way to lunch when he pulled into a parking lot, saying he needed to check on something. We crossed the railroad tracks and walked along a path towards a building he owns, when he veered off the path and led us down a slight embankment and under a bridge, an area that’s become a homeless encampment. At least ten men and women were there getting haircuts. “Where do I get in line?” asked Mike.
“Hi Mike!” “Papa Holcomb!” Seemed that everybody knew him, and they were all glad to see him. Mike called most of them by name asked how everybody was doing. Afterwards, we walked the perimeter of his building.
“When I bought this place, I had it painted, then I told those guys I didn’t ever want to see any graffiti on it. I said if there is any, I’ll blame them and will make sure they can’t stay there. I try and stop by as often as I can to say hi, and give them fifty to a hundred bucks to split. Everybody needs help sometime.”
Only once has a tagger shown up. Spray paint can in-hand, he was met by a number of the guys we’d just spoken to. They told the would-be-artist that he would be better off putting the paint away and never coming back.
Mike’s generosity is not dependent on a return favor. He used to take a couple of homeless guys he’d gotten to know to his house for a shower, while his wife washed their clothes. Once, during a particularly cold rain storm, he drove to where he knew a woman would be sleeping outside, took her to a hotel and paid for her to stay a week. After the earthquake in 2014, Mike passed out thousands, mostly leaving waitresses huge tips. When one of his buildings was temporarily red tagged, he paid all the employees salaries from the two businesses affected. Why does he do it? “Because I can, and I think it’s the right thing to do. If my kids take after me, I hope they’ll be that way.”
“Sometimes it backfires,” he said. “One of the guys I was taking home for showers quit coming to the downtown Starbucks (Holcomb owns that building) and started going to a different location. He told other people it was because ‘Holcomb is trying to change me.’ I learned not to make assumptions about what’s best for people.”
He has also contributed and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support doctors who fix cleft palates for kids around the world and over $400,000 for a hospital Burundi, in East Africa. “That’s where the poorest of the poor live. You can’t believe it till you see it.” He built a clinic in San Marcos, Guatemala, which the hospital staff wanted to name after his family. “The only condition I made was that they name it anything but Holcomb.”
Mike was born in Portsmouth, OH, just a few hundred yards from the Ohio River and Kentucky, where the rest of his family is from. He is one of six children separated by twenty years. Jimmy, older than Mike by eighteen months, had a high fever at four months of age that left him brain damaged. He could still go to school but was impaired. “My parents told me that since Jimmy and I were closest in age, it was my job to take care of him. If anybody messed with him or made fun of him, they answered to me.” Mike deeply loved his brother. “No matter where I was, I called him every day of his life.”
By his admission, he wasn’t much of a high school student (“I was completely disinterested,”) and he joined the Marines after graduation. While stationed in El Toro, a friend asked Mike if he would drive him to his girlfriend’s place. The two men walked in the house, and out walked a dark haired Mexican beauty that took Mike’s breath away. “She had five sisters and one older brother, an Army veteran wounded in Vietnam, who fiercely looked out for his sisters. I knew I had to win him over if she was ever going to marry a non-Mexican.” Mike passed scrutiny with flying colors. “I’ve been married to the best person I’ve ever met in my life for 50 years. If I had twenty more lives, I’d want to marry her every time.”
Post military, Mike went to work for a company selling radiators. He was incredibly successful and was recruited by another company. “I told the new guys I wanted to live in Northern California, and they said yes. After searching for two months, we settled on Napa.” The Holcombs moved here in 1981 and bought a 1,750 square foot home on West Pueblo. Mike built a basketball court, complete with lights. Their home was where all the neighborhood kids would hang out. “I was always a father to my sons’ friends. I told all of them that if they were ever in trouble and didn’t know who to call, to call me. We might have a conversation about it later, but that’s okay.”
Along the way, Mike started his own business, 1-800-RADIATORS, which was another home run. He and his wife built a $2 million, 3,900 sq. foot home. “We went to it when it was finished, and realized we couldn’t live there. It didn’t have any memories for us.” They sold it without having spent one night in it, and have lived at the original home on West Pueblo since.
Mike’s success both in business and life comes from a simple philosophy. “It’s easy to be kind, to treat people well and to be honest.” He was always fair with his employees. “Not a person who’s worked for me wouldn’t do so again. If there is someone, I owe them a phone call and an apology. The measure of a company is not how well the owner does; it’s how well everybody does.” Mike sees money not only as a way to support his own family, but as a way to help those less fortunate.
Although he’s owned 29 buildings over the years, he doesn’t think of himself as a developer. “I just buy old buildings, make them look nice and charge marketplace rent. Before I sell anything, I offer it to the tenant at the best price.” He’s lived in Napa for forty years now, and he loves this community. He also loves doing the right thing. “Being nice doesn’t cost anything.”
Several years ago, Mike was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. “They told me that only 12.5% of people with my kind of cancer make it past five years. I’ve got three under my belt.” He doesn’t want to die. “I don’t like having cancer at all, but I can’t say it is or isn’t fair.” He recalled the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, who died of AIDS from a blood transplant. “He said his first thought was, ‘Why me?’ and then, ‘Why not me?’ If it does take me, I’ve lived a wonderful life. And I know I’ll get to see my brother Jimmy again.”