In Memoriam

Terry M. Holcombe, who helped secure a strong financial future for Yale

Terry M. Holcombe, a former vice president for development and alumni affairs who helped assure a strong financial future for Yale, died on June 5 at 81.
Terry M. Holcombe
Terry M. Holcombe

Terry M. Holcombe ’64, Yale’s vice president for development and alumni affairs from 1982 to 1998, died on June 5 at Yale New Haven Hospital, the same hospital in which he was born.  He was 81.

A large personality, whose straight-talk, rapier wit, and gregarious nature gave him a high profile and made him a favorite among university donors, Holcombe twice led Yale in history-making capital campaigns, including the record breaking $1.7 billion “…and for Yale” campaign which concluded in 1997. At the time it was the largest amount ever raised by an educational institution.

That campaign was the second major fundraising effort that Holcombe led at the university. As executive director of The Campaign for Yale, completed in 1979, during the tenure of President A. Bartlett Giamatti, he helped raise more than $370 million in capital funds, at the time an exceptionally high bar for university fund-raising. In between that first campaign and the second, he served in the same capacity at Columbia University, where during his tenure total giving increased by 27% and the number of alumni donors grew by 10,000.

Terry’s service was at the foundation of modern giving to Yale,” said Yale President Peter Salovey on hearing of Holcombe’s death. “Much that we take for granted now would have been impossible without the contributions made during the Holcombe era.”

President Emeritus Richard Levin added, “Over the course of his distinguished career, Terry Holcombe counseled six Yale presidents, offering wise advice on the interests, needs, and potential generosity of our alumni. His success as a fundraiser hinged on his deep insight into people. He was an astute judge of talent: two members of his team served as successors in his role as vice president, and many others went on to lead development efforts elsewhere. Intensely loyal to his alma mater, the class of 1964, friends, and colleagues, he was widely admired and respected.”

Dorothy Robinson, Yale’s retired vice president and chief legal counsel of 30 years, reflected further on his role as university leader and on her continuing friendship.  She remembered Holcombe’s shrewd common sense and perspicacity, and the way he cut to the heart of things with humor and wit. “I’ve lost an irreplaceable friend,” she said.

Holcombe was legendary at occasionally using comedy, not pressure, to persuade others to commit to service or philanthropy. A typical story: once at a reunion of his class when cell phones were new, he asked a friend for his cell number. Twenty minutes later during a reunion meeting the friend’s cell rang.  He hadn’t yet figured out “mute,” so he hastily left the room to answer.  When he did Holcombe’s voice on the other end said, “You were the first to leave the room, so you have now been elected unanimously as the chairman of the ’64 reunion.” The friend complied.

Holcombe stayed connected to Yale and its development office long after he retired. “Terry was deeply committed to long term relationship building and he instilled this in the staff team he led,” said Joan O’Neill, the current vice president for alumni affairs and development. “He continued to advise, and counsel me as well as  many other former staff members and we could always count on him for wisdom and support.”

Holcombe did not fit the natural profile of a fundraiser for an elite institution. He was an East Haven, Connecticut native who graduated from East Haven High School and never lost the sense of his East Haven roots, or his position as an “inside-outside” man: someone who was an officer of the university, a senior member of the Yale administration, and yet also a “townie,” one who looked at Yale from the outside as well as the inside.

He and his wife of 57 years Marya gave years of service to some of New Haven’s most vulnerable communities, especially through New Haven’s Sunrise Café,  a volunteer organization that feeds breakfast to a food unsecure community and offers a refuge and support for overcoming life’s challenges. A tireless volunteer, he served on the boards of many institutions, including Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, Camp Keewaydin, the Yale Alumni Fund, the Buckley Institute, and Mory’s.

James Duderstadt ’64, president emeritus of the University of Michigan, gratefully remembers how Holcombe persuaded him to come to Yale. Born and raised in the small farm town of Carrollton, Missouri, Duderstadt recalls how his friend of 60 years induced him to matriculate and play football at Yale, and even met him at the airport when he arrived.

Except for him,” Duderstadt says, “I likely would have gone to the University of Missouri.” As undergraduates they became roommates, played football side by side, and in later years remained close, benefitting from many discussions about institutional priorities and leadership.

Fay Vincent ’63 J.D., the former commissioner of Major League Baseball, recalled his close friend as a “kid from East Haven who always was surprised when introduced as a Yale vice president,” a man of “stunning skills and insights who was a confidant and intimate counselor to President Bart Giamatti,” and was always able to provide “wisdom out of tough insights and humor.” His personal loss, he said, was “immense.”

After graduating from Yale College, Holcombe earned a master's degree from the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. For nine years he was executive director for ACCION International, a nonprofit corporation providing grants and technical assistance to development projects in Latin America.

Holcombe, whose family home after retirement has been in Walpole, New Hampshire, is survived by his wife of 57 years, Marya; his daughters, Kerry Auld (Christopher), Brette Fitton, and Marjorie Elliott (Justin); his son, Samuel Holcombe; his adored grandchildren, Audrey Logan, Angus Auld, and Euan Auld; and his best four-legged friend, Cash.

Burial will be private. There will be a memorial service on Sunday Oct. 29 at 1:30 p.m. at the Elm City Club. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Vox Church, 131 Commercial Parkway, Building 1, Branford, CT, 06405; Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, 708 Kurn Hatton Road, Westminster, VT., 05158; or the Buckley Institute, 234 Church Street, 7th Floor, New Haven, CT, 06510.

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