A number of titles could be attached to Jack Combo’s name to define the roles he has played during his 85-year journey: Veteran. Esquire or “Of Counsel.” Husband, father and grandfather. Board chairman. Civic leader. Laborer.
But none is more fitting than gentleman.
That attribute remains a constant thread woven through years of public service. He has become known for his common wisdom and enduring compassion for others. The 18-year veteran of the Idaho Transportation Board has proven to be a gentle spirit and voice of reason. A champion of common laborers, a protector of the environment, a community builder, a guardian of public trust.
From coaching Babe Ruth and American Legion baseball, to debating highway construction projects and arguing before the Idaho Supreme Court, Combo has enjoyed the respect of his peers. Last week he was genuinely humbled while enduring the accolades of fellow transportation board members and an auditorium filled with ITD employees who assembled on the advent of his board retirement.
Through six terms on the board, Combo has consistently elevated the well-being of ITD employees ahead of other considerations. He pressed hard for salary increases when funds were scarce and has been a strong advocate of additional training and professional development opportunities for ITD workers.
He came by those concerns naturally.
Combo’s father was a laborer and union business agent in Montana’s “extraction” industry, harvesting natural resources from the state’s buried storehouses. His mother was a department store clerk. And between semesters at Montana School of the Mines, Combo worked on highway crews where he learned how to operate a #2 shovel – the kind with a round point instead of the #1 square point.
“I became very familiar with the #2 shovel… That’s when I began to develop an appreciation for transportation workers and the important role they play...,” he recalls.
In the winter he was on-call as a snowplow operator in the frigid Butte, Mont., area.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering (1947), he enrolled in law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., although he determined early in the pursuit that he really didn’t want to enter private practice.
Instead, he embarked on a 37-year career as legal counsel for public agencies, first with the Solicitor’s Office in the Department of Interior and then with the Atomic Energy Commission.
Between semesters at Georgetown, Combo made a hasty return to Montana to marry his childhood friend Eileen in 1947. They were introduced during dances that brought together students from Catholic boys’ and girls’ high schools in Butte. They have been more than husband and wife through 60 years of marriage – they have been partners, Combo explains.
“She has been a great wife, mother and grandmother… I’m very blessed to have her as my wife.”
Eileen accompanied him when the Atomic Energy Commission reassigned him to Grand Junction, Colo., to serve as counsel at its center for uranium exploration and processing. He left as chief counsel to accept a similar position closer to his roots – at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho Falls. He ascended to deputy manager before retiring in 1981.
The holder of two college degrees, Combo was honored with a third in 1962 when Montana Technical Institute (successor to Montana School of Mines) presented him with an honorary degree in professional engineering – a title that blended nicely with his second career as a member of the transportation board.
Combo was appointed to the three-member panel by Gov. Cecil Andrus in 1990. Gov. Phil Batt reappointed him to a second six-year term in 1996, and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne continued the appointment in 2002.
During that distinguished tenure, under five governors and eight Idaho Transportation Department directors (four permanent and four acting) and through several health battles, Combo has been a pillar of consistency.
According to his math, 18 years on the board, with at least monthly meetings translates to about 215 board meetings. He has missed only five meetings in those 18 years– twice because of surgery and three times because of family commitments.
Although he resides in District 6 that encompasses nine eastern Idaho counties, Combo is quick to point out that he served the entire state while on the transportation board. He never considered the appointment one of geographic allegiance.
“I’m one of the seven people with a voice for the whole state of Idaho,” he insists. Combo had a great vantage point to see the new Interstate 15/Sunnyside Interchange and Snake River bridge constructed south of Idaho Falls. It was the same vantage point from which he watched new interchanges constructed near Rigby on U.S. 20.
But he doesn’t claim them as his own.
Combo is equally proud of interchanges constructed on interstates 86 and 90; he’s equally proud of the hazardous two-lane sections of U.S. highways that have been expanded to safer four-lane divided highways; he’s proud of new and rebuilt safety rest areas, safer bridges and improved airstrip runways.
All are part of a transportation system – an interconnected, interdependent system that functions as a whole.
Ask him to sift through 18 years of service on the transportation board, his tour of duty as a sonar officer on a submarine chaser in World War II. Ask him about 37 years of service with the federal government and two decades of service on a Montana economic development board. Ask him about the new Idaho Falls City Library that gained voter endorsement while he served on the library board. Ask him about his work with a number of other civic organizations and his honorary engineering degree.
Of what is Combo most proud?
Nothing even compares – his family of six children and 14 grandchildren. All of the six Combo children earned college degrees and enjoy successful careers. Four are lawyers, including a daughter who serves as senior assistant attorney general for the state of Washington. Others practice law in Phoenix, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls.
Jack continues to serve as “Of Counsel” at his son’s Idaho Falls law firm; his name appears on the firm’s letterhead. When Combo seeks solitude or wants to conduct transportation board business he bids farewell to Eileen and retreats to his office at the Bill Combo law office. It’s his sanctuary, his home-away-from-home.
Although he is stepping down from the transportation board, Combo says he will continue to serve on the board of directors for the Montana Economic Revitalization and Development Institute and its wholly owned subsidiary MSE, Inc. He is chairman of the MERDI board.
“I know I speak for all ITD employees when I offer our thanks for Jack's many years of dedicated service on our board,” said ITD Director Pam Lowe. “Only one other person served a longer tenure, but none has done it with more dignity and devotion than Jack. We will miss his leadership, his expertise and his genuine concern for employees.”
Photos: ITD director Pam Lowe presented a sign to Jack Combo commemorating the naming of a training room in his honor (top); Wife Eileen and daughter Katherine Combo Koloski were on hand to celebrate the moment (top left); Human Resource Services Manager Mary Harker provided an overview of Jack's contributions to the board, department and state (bottom left); Fellow board members joined employees in a standing ovation for their retiring colleague (above).