Meet The Holcombes  

By Cary R. Varnado

"The object of art is
to give life shape."
– Jean Anouilh

Like the 19th century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, Alexandria internist Dr. David Holcombe paints with bold, daring strokes. Van Gogh painted the life he saw outside his window, but for Holcombe, life is the canvas.

Whether it's art, medicine or family, Holcombe views the world with a certitude not easily found in modern society.

"They call me a socialist," Holcombe jokes. "It's not really true; it's just a different perspective. I think it's a broader perspective."

The birth of this perspective, says Holcombe, came largely in a "life-altering" choice he made nearly three decades ago.

With a master's degree in poultry science, Holcombe found the doors into medical school closed in the United States.

"When I started applying to medical school and was having all this trouble, I had fine arts and Russian literature," he observes. "Now they like people that have broader backgrounds – it makes you a better physician and all that, but at the time it wasn't true.

"Well, when all that happened, I had applied and wasn't accepted, I said, 'I'm not going to sit around, so I'll go into agriculture.

"So I continued applying to medical school while I was in agriculture and every year I'd get all these rejections," Holcombe said.

"Great artists have
no country."
– Alfred de Musset

Just as van Gogh was driven to service as a missionary among the Borinage miners by a deep desire to help his fellow man, Holcombe refused to let rejections at home keep him from a calling to medicine. So the self-described "citizen of the world" enrolled at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels, Belgium.
Life as a student is not easy in any country, though, and Holcombe soon found himself in need of additional income.

Putting one of his personal interests to good use, Holcombe got a job teaching folk dancing at the student recreation center, where he caught the eye of a young Belgian girl named Nicole.
"We belonged in different groups," notes Nicole, David's wife of 24 years. "One time I learned, 'Oh that's an American guy teaching," she chuckles.

In 1981 David made Nicole the next muse for his life's canvas.

The marriage ceremony was simple.

"We had two witnesses and a few friends," Holcombe recalls.

Despite a humble beginning to their marriage, the couple doesn't regret not having a more lavish wedding.
"I really can't say that I've ever regretted not having that kind of social event," Holcombe notes. "I know people think that's important, but that's not the glue that holds a marriage together."

With the paint yet to dry on their life together, David went to work for a short time in Brussels. But the job market for physicians in Brussels was not favorable at the time, so he took a residency in Baltimore.

He brought with him a wife who didn't speak English. They had little money and few material possessions.
Life was difficult at first. The couple lived in a tiny apartment with no air conditioning, at times sleeping on the floor like van Gogh with his Belgian miners.

"We couldn't afford any furniture, so we had eight big trunks," recalls Nicole. "One was a table and one was a chair … When you think about it, you think 'wow.' So everything we have, we have because we've worked for it."

"Welcome O Life! I go to encounter for the
millionth time the reality of experience and
to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated
conscience of my race."
– James Joyce

Life in Baltimore was more than dark colors and muddied canvas, however. The Holcombe family welcomed the first two of their four sons, Renaud, now 23, and Tanguy, now 21, to their midst during this time. Two more, Joffroi and Thibault, would follow in successive years.

"I told him, 'you go to work, I will make babies,'" Nicole remembers. "It was hard. His schedule was tough, he was rarely at home. For three years we never went to a movie, we never went to a restaurant. It made you appreciate what you had," she said.

As difficult as life in residency could be, however, still tougher choices lay ahead.

"When I finished," remarks Holcombe, "the real question was 'What am I going to do?'

"I've always been a little resentful that I applied for four years to the University of California without being accepted, so I thought to myself, 'Why would I go back there?'"

"Drama is action, sir, action
and not confounded philosophy."
– Luigi Pirandello

In 1885, van Gogh left his native Netherlands to seek a sense of the exotic in Antwerp, saying, "I find here the friction of ideas I want."

The Holcombes, pondering a life beyond Maryland's struggles, would similarly find an appeal in the familiar language and exotic culture of a land south of the Mason-Dixon.

"We decided on Louisiana," Holcombe explains, because, "they speak French, they're one of the poorest states … but it was also one of the sickest states in the union, so I figured if the people are sick and they speak French, this will be a natural fit. We'll fit right in."

Nicole adds, "He's obsessed with French. He had a lot of that missionary zeal, and today he still has it."
So like the Dutch painter ministering to the poor and downtrodden, the Holcombes moved to Alexandria in 1986, where David works as an internist at the Freedman Clinic. He feels as passionately about his occupation now as he ever has.

"You have to have that special interest," Holcombe explains. "You really have to get active in the community and if you do, then your experience will be very favorable.

"Coming here was sort of specula-tion that wherever you end up, you're going to be OK if you approach it with the right philosophical perspective," he said.

"Il faut ιpater le bourgeois."
("One must shock the bourgeois.")
– Charles Baudelaire

That perspective is one that places the highest value on contributing to the culture. And the Holcombes have certainly done their share.

Together, the couple still shares the love for Czech folk dance that brought them together nearly three decades ago. But this is just the beginning of their collective commitment to the arts.

Nicole is fond of creating pysanki, decorative Ukrainian Easter eggs made using layers of hot wax and brightly colored dyes. She even teaches the technique at Our Lady of Prompt Succor.

"Years ago, we went to the Czech festival and they were needing some money," she explains, "so I said, 'I can teach you that. It's more yours than mine; it's more like an Eastern European tradition.' So every Monday from January to March, we decorate these eggs that go to the Czech festival."
For his part, David is a prolific painter, expounding his views on life, love and even politics on the canvas with a drive that would make the Dutch master proud.

"Art is a reflection of society," Holcombe says. "There's going to obviously be a passion for the subject and it's going to be a reflection of the time … It's going to have an element in it that makes it timeless.

"Those people are almost always misunderstood or rejected or whatever because … people don't think about those things. That's what great art is all about. That's why your van Goghs flourish in obscurity – because they have all that passion," he said.

"Dancing is just discovery,
discovery, discovery."
– Martha Graham

But what about the children?

Between pysanki, painting, dance and doctoring, how has this couple worked to pass on their shared passion to their four boys now spreading their wings to begin life on theirown?

The answer, says David, is simplicity.

"First of all, you make sure you eat together - at least once a week," he says. "We forced them to attend cultural events," he continues. "We took them on trips in the summer. I would pick a destination that would be not just a vacation, but would be educational, too," he said.

While many children took family vacations to water parks or Disneyland, the Holcombe boys experienced the thrill of climbing Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula and exploring the halls of art and history in Brussels and France.

The couple's dedication to service has paid dividends.

Tanguy serves his country in the Air Force. Renaud attended Loyola University in New Orleans and found work as a computer programmer. Their youngest, Thibault, 18, spent his summer learning French in Belgium. For his part 19-year-old Joffroi, a former Menard cross-country standout, inherited his parents' love of artistic expression.

On his son's sketches, Holcombe boasted, "He has a fine sense of perspective and balance … a real fine hand."

"Dance is the loftiest, the most
moving, the most beautiful of the
arts, because it is no mere translation
or abstraction from life; it is life itself."
– Havelock Ellis

The Holcombes' marriage is energized, David says, by their shared interests.

"You discover that the person is still evolving and changing and developing," he explains.

"Nicole has her egg thing and that continues to develop and evolve and she goes off to these workshops … and so that way, you look at the person and you think, 'Well, I really don't know them,'" he says.
For her part, Nicole takes a much simpler view.

"It's been 28 years," she says, "and we are still dancing."

Copyright © 2005  The Town Talk.