William Robert Holcomb was a descendant of Fortyniner and early San Bernardino settler Billy Holcomb, the son of former San Bernardino Mayor Grant Holcomb and was himself the longest serving mayor in the history of San Bernardino.
During his 88 years, Holcomb was a bomber pilot, lawyer, newspaper publisher and editor, water commissioner and politician.
Born in San Bernardino in 1922 to Grant Holcomb and Eleanor Burkham Holcomb, Holcomb was raised in a home on 20th Street between D and E streets. When he was three years old, his father, Grant, was elected San Bernardino mayor. His father served two years in the capacity of mayor, from 1925 until 1927. His uncle, Howard Holcomb, was elected to the San Bernardino City Council in 1933.
William Robert attended Elliot Grammar School, near Highland Avenue and E Street and then Arrowview Junior High School. At San Bernardino High School, he was in the Junior Exchange Club.
More than a half century later, he would fondly recall fishing in the streams and swimming in the swimming holes in the foothills north of the city. He once borrowed a friend’s kayak with the intention of using it to ride the Santa Ana River all the way to the Pacific Coast in Santa Ana, but before embarking on that excursion he attempted to use the kayak, during the March 1938 Flood, to go down Sierra Way, which had swelled to the size of a river. He made it, he said, from his embarkation point near 21st Street down to 3rd Street, where he lost the kayak and nearly his life when he was swamped by the rushing current. He was pulled from the torrent by a passer-by.
He graduated from San Bernardino High in 1940. He enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. Upon completing just two years toward his four year degree, with the intervention of the Second World War he enlisted in the U.S. Army on October 13, 1942, qualified as a pilot, and served in the United States Army Air Corps flying bombing missions over Germany in a B-17 with the 412th Bomb Squadron, 95th Bomb Group from bases in England.
After he returned stateside, Holcomb was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army on October 26, 1945. A little more than eight months later, on July 7, 1946, he married Pearl “Penny” Pennington, with whom he would have four children – Jay, William, Robert and Terri Lee.
Holcomb rematriculated at the University of California, Berkeley, completed his Bachelor of Arts in law on June 16, 1949 and went on to receive his juris doctor degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in 1950. He hung out his shingle and worked as an attorney thereafter.
He made his way into politics in 1964 indirectly when he gravitated toward a leadership role in the opposition to a proposed merger between San Bernardino’s local water district, San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, and the far larger and more powerful Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. On the 1964 ballot, voters in the eastern San Bernardino Valley were faced with deciding on whether the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District should remain as an independent agency or whether it should be folded into the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Supporters of the merger included a number of development interests, powerful politicians, financial institutions and business figures, as well as San Bernardino’s major media outlet, the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram. The consolidation was a political juggernaut spinning toward passage, as proponents were asserting, and making progress toward convincing the area’s residents that, the city would be plagued with perpetual water shortages if the consolidation with the Metropolitan Water District was not effectuated, since the Metropolitan Water District had access to water from the Colorado River.
Spearheading the campaign to preserve local water rights for the city of San Bernardino, Holcomb took the extraordinary step of creating a weekly newspaper, The Independent Press, which would later be rechristened San Bernardino’s Free Press. He used the paper to inveigh against the merger. Voters rejected the Metropolitan Water District takeover in the 1964 election. Shortly after the election, San Bernardino Mayor Donald G. “Bud” Mauldin sought and obtained the resignation of the members of the city’s board of water commissioners. On May 4, 1964, Mauldin appointed Holcomb president of the board, giving him the autonomy to select his fellow members. Holcomb then appointed Harold Willis and Margaret Chandler. As one of its first acts, the city’s newly-composed board of water commissioners ordered that the cement plug to the well that had previously fed Seccomb Lake be removed so that the lake could be refilled and thereafter be continually replenished.
Holcomb’s most lasting legacy is that he ensured that San Bernardino maintain its local water rights.
Holcomb was further credited, as a consequence of his action in preserving San Bernardino’s water rights and a parallel lobbying effort, with convincing the California State University system to locate a campus in San Bernardino, what is now known as California State University, San Bernardino. Adequate local water was a necessary element for the construction of that institution.
Holcomb’s newspaper was successful as a publication to the point that as its circulation and coverage increased, he moved to publish it twice weekly. With that, the newspaper, which was becoming a viable alternative to the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram, saw even greater profitability. Years later, Holcomb would lament that trying to increase it to a thrice-weekly publication caused it to fail, and he was forced to shut it down.
Holcomb served as Mayor of San Bernardino from 1971 until 1985. He returned to office again from 1989 until 1993. Holcomb would become, if not the first, the most vocal advocate against Charter Amendment 186, which essentially locked in high pay and benefits for the city’s policemen and firefighters. Holcomb maintained that this “formula that sets the pay and benefits for the police and fire officers takes all the discretion away from the city council. The pay wages and retirement benefits and health benefits may be just fine if you are a policeman or fireman, but it is not very good for the taxpayers or the city. It is causing our costs to really skyrocket, and to keep up with these big pay increases, we’ve had to pass a utility tax. We were one of the first cities in the state to have a utility tax, which is undoubtedly a great source of revenue, but at the same time it is a big impediment to people wanting to annex to the city. Whenever the city has tried to convince the owners of good land, choice land, to annex to the city, they have turned us down. Their reason is almost always utility tax, which is something they don’t want to pay.”
Later mayors and city officials would decry Charter Amendment 186, and some have blamed it for the city’s progression toward insolvency and, ultimately, its 2012 bankruptcy filing. As a consequence of Charter Amendment 186, the city in 2016, six years after Holcomb’s death, closed out its 138-year old municipal fire department and annexed itself into a county fire district to have the county fire department provide fire protection and medical service.
The author, Mark Gutglueck, is a member of the Billy Holcomb Chapter of E Clampus Vitus.