On Resurrection Sunday, April 16, 2017, Katherine Franks Holcombe, 94, finished her race, the race she ran excellently, and entered the gates of heaven. “Well done, good and faithful servant!” is what she heard from Jesus as He embraced her and welcomed her home.
Katherine was born Oct. 15, 1922, in Olive Hill, Tenn., in the county of Savannah, to Lillian Henderson Franks and Roscoe Franks, who were sharecroppers. She was the first of five children, and had three sisters, Inez Franks Robinson, Hazel Franks Smith and Virginia Franks Albertson; and one brother, Max Franks, all of whom were waiting for her in heaven.
Life was difficult during the Great Depression, and Katherine’s mom, whom she called ‘Mama,’ sometimes made their clothes out of potato-sack material. “But we never thought we were poor,” Katherine often said. They lived in a simple one-room house that her father built, along with a safe place dug out of the side of a hill where they stayed during storms. Her stories of that time include being picked up by winds from a tornado that tossed her and her father into the mud near the stables where they kept their horses.
Little did she know then, however, that her humble beginnings hid what turned out to be such a rich and full family history. She was amazed at recent research into her family’s genealogy that revealed some of her great-great-grandparents included lieutenant Richard Reagan, who served in the American Revolution; Daniel DaFoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe; Queen Anabella of Scotland; Peregrine White, who sailed over on the Mayflower; the first Swedish settlers in America; and August Herman Francke, a well-loved German preacher who, among many things, started an orphanage, school, dispensary and library. As a matter of fact, Katherine had many preachers of various denomination in her line-Quaker, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Puritan, Baptist and the Church of England. Along with her English, Scottish, German and Swedish roots, she also had Italian, Norwegian, Irish and European Jewish blood.
But back to those humble beginnings; blessings were definitely counted. When Katherine was a child, Christmases weren’t extravagant, but they were special. Katherine says she used to get an orange and a penny in her stocking, along with a little doll and something her mom made, such as a knitted scarf. Her mom also saved up to make a coconut cake every Christmas, and that became their tradition. Although Katherine never really took up the hobby of arts and crafts, she appreciated her mom’s beautiful work of afghans, embroidery and quilts. She treasured them and even kept a couple on her bed or on the couch to proudly display them.
One time, a traveling preacher woman came to town and stayed with the Franks family. Katherine says they all gave their lives to Jesus during her visit, and soon after, little Katherine was seen standing in the middle of the woods on a log or a rock and preaching to her cousins and siblings. She even started going to church by herself. After she was cast in a children’s Christmas play at the Presbyterian Church, her parents came to see her and started attending, too.
Katherine loved going to the movies. She’d walk to town to see Tarzan and Shirley Temple. One time, on the way home one night, she said she heard someone following her. But every time she stopped, the footsteps stopped. She hurried along and when she got to the top of the hilly road, she looked back and found that it was a dog who had followed her all the way home.
Animals loved Katherine, and she loved taking care of them. As a child, the first animal she remembers rescuing was a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. She said she carefully picked him up and put him back in the nest while the mama bird kept diving for her head. Later, she’d have plenty of pets at different seasons in her life, including dogs, Blackie, Nipper and Misty; and birds, Barkley Sr., Barkley Jr., Lucky and Brodie. They loved her in return and always knew she was their mama.
During World War II, Katherine and her cousin Grace moved to Mobile, Ala., and lived in a boarding house run by a kind doctor and his wife. Katherine worked with military ships’ blueprints. She also started business school, but left that to wait tables at Papageorge’s, often working double shifts and taking in a movie in between. She did this so she could help her mom by sending money back to her in Tennessee.
Although it had been her dream to someday open her own dress shop, she did see another dream turn into reality. While waiting tables, a certain handsome, charming and outgoing customer walked in, and the rest is history. Leo Claude Holcombe became the love of her life, and they shared many happy years together. Interestingly, Katherine studied to become a Roman Catholic to get Leo to go back to church. He always credited her for helping him in so many ways, especially in raising their children while he served in the U.S. Army.
Together, Katherine and Leo raised four children, Dorothy Holcombe Lathan (married to Woodie Lathan), Theresa Holcombe Heinz (married to William Heinz), Leo Holcombe Jr. (married to Eileen Eckert), and Sandra Holcombe. They also had one son, Sam, who they lost before birth, but who is now getting to know his mom for the first time in heaven.
Through their children, Katherine and Leo have 10 grandchildren, Rhonda Williams Cabrita, Shelia Williams Jewett, Kimberly Heinz Nierman, Michelle Holcombe Steighner, Lisa Holcombe Strouse, Jason Holcombe, Marie Holcombe and Adam Holcombe, and twin boys in heaven; 16 great-grandchildren, Dolan Gonzalez Jr., Nathan Preston, Lucas Swearingen, Alyssa Heinz Nierman, Noah Nierman, Reagan Nierman, John Tomlin, Sara Schweiger, Zachary Boyle, Anna Strouse, Matthew Holcombe, Jackson Holcombe, Brea Holcombe, Cara Holcombe, Michael Borgesi and VivianTraitz; and one great-great-grandchild, Alden Preston.
Katherine’s family always brought her a lot of joy, and she loved seeing pictures of everyone growing up, and loved the times when they could all get together, including road trips up to Michigan or down to Florida in earlier years, or backyard barbecues under the willow trees and playing Jarts in her own backyard when family visited during summer vacations, and the shows the kids would stage in dance-recital costumes next to the swing set under the floodlight, or the whole summers when she loved having Rhonda and Shelia stay with them ’til school started up again.
When Katherine was in her early 50’s, Leo was diagnosed with lung cancer. She took care of him at home the best she could, and when he had extended stays at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital during chemotherapy and surgeries, she not only traveled back and forth, she worked as a sales associate for Rices Nachmans at Janaf Shopping Center in Norfolk, raised her youngest child and took care of her home in Virginia Beach, doing everything excellently and with strength and grace.
For someone who wasn’t that fond of traveling, Katherine could add many pins to a map. Besides Tennessee and Alabama, she lived in South Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, Michigan, Alaska and Germany and visited France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein and Austria. She also took side trips to the World’s Fair, Disney World, Washington, D.C., to see Pope John Paul II, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Atlantic City, Colonial Williamsburg and even took a cruise to Bermuda.
During her Rices Nachmans days, Katherine received the Distinguished Sales Associate Award on several occasions and also the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation’s Outstanding Community Service Award. After Rices closed, when Katherine was just months away from retiring with them and receiving retirement benefits, she was hired immediately by Proffitt’s at Pembroke Mall. Later, Proffitt’s turned into Hess’s, and Hess’s turned into Dillard’s, and Katherine was hired by them all. She worked for Dillard’s until almost her 80th birthday, and she loved every minute of it.
One of her favorite Dillard’s stories was when she waited on Rod Stewart and had no idea who he was. She said he was really nice and she measured him for khakis. He told her he was in town for a concert, and she assumed he was there to attend one. They chit-chatted, with Katherine asking about his wife, who he said was back in Chicago. He then paid cash, shook her hand and introduced himself. “I’m Rod Stewart,” he said. Kindly, she replied, “Nice to meet you. I’m Katherine Holcombe.” He was probably tickled to be treated well just for being her customer. After he left, all her coworkers ran over to get the scoop. She never forgot him after that. Even when she was ill, and he’d show up on television or in a video, she knew exactly who he was. That singer with the straggly blond hair.
Although Katherine never opened up her own dress shop, she found joy in helping customers in retail and in volunteering at the gift shop at St. Gregory’s. She also raised money for the American Heart Association for many years and was a member of the Catholic Daughters of America. Through them, she helped with their annual Christmas bazaar, the March of Dimes telethon, Meals on Wheels, Lenten fish fries, and various other events and even helped take tickets for the Tidewater Tides at Harbor Park.
In addition, Katherine loved taking care of her house and yard. Her house was always spotless and in good order, and her lawn was always cut and edged expertly. She loved being outside, even if just to pick up a few pine cones or fallen pears. She grew roses, day lilies, canna lilies, azaleas, and hydrangeas, and she loved to grow tomatoes, too.
In recent years, she loved starting organic tomatoes and basil from seeds. One of her favorite pastimes was to sit outside on her patio and drink iced tea or eat an ice-cream cone and chat with neighbors. Sometimes she’d sit out there and watch the sun set and then watch the moon and stars appear. It was probably her favorite time of day.
Katherine also loved bowling, Bingo, lottery tickets and slot machines. And when she was younger, she loved to dance, especially the Jitterbug.
Her dear friends include her best friend of over 50 years, Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Holt, who’s always been a forever-friend; Theresa Blaylock, her good friend and neighbor of many years, who also did Katherine’s hair while she was sick; and Ellen Dunbar, whose sweet friendship goes back to their days at Rices. All three of these women were special to Katherine. She loved them, kept in touch when she could, and appreciated their friendship greatly. Other special friends and neighbors include Cheryl Thomas, who always made her laugh and feel special, and who often stayed with her while her daughter ran errands. And more special friends include the Irbys; the Jeffers; the Morrises; the Thomases; the Whites; the Gates; Chris Coen and her family; Barbara Graves and Fonda; Beth Orne and her mom, Elaine Orne; Sharon Stephens Vaninger; Barbara Stanulis; Cathy Riley Becker Jones; Jean Young; Linda; Louella; Jackie; Sue Booker; Ellen Kelly; the Harrises; the Strucks; the Chatoms; the Hatts; the Potts; the Sugars; and the two other Katherines she used to sit with at Mass.
Katherine also has wonderful nieces and nephews: Patricia Albertson Peek, Linda Albertson Montalvo, Nancy Albertson, John Smith, Barbara Smith Zelenka, Max Franks Jr., Mark Franks, Matthew Franks, Michelle Franks Dennison and Missy Franks Smith, plus many great and great-great-nieces and nephews.
A founding member of St. Gregory’s, Katherine enjoyed Mass officiated by Father Mario Fulgenzi and all the wonderful priests. She also was grateful for the times she was prayed over by Deacon Darrell Wentworth, and actually had a supernatural healing by the Holy Spirit a few years ago when pain after a hip-replacement surgery went away instantly and her back straightened, causing all the nurses to proclaim that it was indeed a miracle. Katherine also appreciated Father John Peck visiting her at home and giving her the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and is probably beaming over the beautiful music sung by Regina Rossi, whom she knew when Regina was in the Junior Legion of Mary with her daughter Sandy.
Katherine appreciated the wonderful care she received from various healthcare professionals over the years, the most recent of which was through Grace Hospice, having graduated twice with their help. She had excellent care from Pastor Gary Newsome, Dr. John Patterson, Dr. Richard Cullen, Dr. Amanda Chance, Social Worker Jodi Baker, Director of Clinical Services Ivan Monev, Physician’s Assistant Tashia, Physical Therapist Dave, Volunteer Coordinator Sam Gettys, and nurses Vicky, Barbara, Charisse, Denise, Sheila, Jamie, Philip, and the entire Grace staff, in addition to Opthamalogist Amanda Paull and her assistant, Kyle.
When Katherine went home, she was clutching a little doll she’d been given on Christmas, and had one of her beloved mom’s handmade quilts covering her. She was in the house she chose and paid for, and was well loved and taken care of by family and friends. She literally fell asleep on this side of life, in perfect peace and no pain, and woke up in heaven. Her faith was still strong; she knew who Jesus was and loved Him very much. She lived a beautiful, full life, and because of Jesus, she’s continuing that life now, in heaven, with no more sickness or disease. She’s healthy and young, and probably dancing and singing, and smiling and laughing. Her laughter’s so beautiful. She’s reunited with her husband and her parents and her brother and sisters and the son and grandsons she’s never met before, and with everyone else up there who’s gone before her. Amazing reunions. Amazing grace. And it happened on Easter Sunday; a day that was as warm as summertime for God’s ‘little Katherine.’ Truly, God is so gracious.
As Scripture says, “Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?”
Death is no more for Katherine. She is more alive now than she’s ever been. And she’d want all her family and friends to remember her most by her faith in God and her love. And she’d want us all to choose to live the most amazing lives possible, to be all we can be, to push through obstacles and challenges with God’s help, and to always choose to love. And to remember that even 94 years go by so fast, and to make the most of every moment so that one day, like Katherine, you’ll hear those beautiful words from Jesus, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” as the banquet reunion feast begins, and the dancing starts, and the good times never, ever end…
Katherine Franks Holcombe’s celebration of life will be held at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Virginia Beach on Friday, April 21. The family will receive friends from 9:30-10:30 a.m. at the church, followed by Mass. A graveside service will follow at 11:30 a.m. at Rosewood Memorial Park.