Friends, family recall Newcomb as model community businessman

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By Randy Patrick

The man who built Newcomb Oil from a small family business into an empire is being remembered as a pillar of his community and a quiet benefactor of Catholic schools and other causes.

John Ligouri Newcomb passed away peacefully at his home in Bardstown March 15, less than two weeks before his 90th birthday.

“John Newcomb is the epitome of a great hometown entrepreneurial success story and was a true visionary,” said Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency.

Those who did business with him appreciated his integrity, which he passed down to his family members, who worked alongside him in the company, she said.

“His spirit will live through them.”

Newcomb loved Bardstown and Nelson County and demonstrated that love by giving back to many organizations, she said.

Newcomb Oil issued this statement Friday morning: “John was a true gentleman. He showed us all the way to live a life to be proud of by the way he treated those around him. He was a great family man who loved his family and the employees he worked with. He will be truly missed by many.”

Newcomb, the son of John C. and Alice Bowling Newcomb, was born in 1927 in New Hope, where his father started his oil business, J.C. Newcomb & Son. He joined the Navy midway through his senior year at St. Joe Prep and received his diploma in 1945 while attending his basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Station. He learned World War II was over when he was crossing the Pacific for the invasion of Japan.

“He joked that when he shipped out to go overseas, the (Japanese) surrendered,” said Dr. Harry Spalding, his close personal, lifelong friend who had known “Johnny” since the Newcombs moved to Bardstown, across the street from the Spaldings’ house, when they were both boys.

Spalding said Newcomb later collaborated with him in writing a book about the war.

Newcomb was a “good community sponsor” and a “sharp businessman,” said Spalding, the former mayor.

One of the highlights of their friendship as adults was a camping trip they took to Alaska together in the 1970s with another buddy, Jimmy Guthrie.

“He lived a long and fruitful life,” Spalding said.

Tom Hamilton, principal of Bethlehem High School, said Newcomb was a big benefactor of Bethlehem, St. Joseph School and the Catholic Church.

A little-known fact about Newcomb, he said, is that when he was a senior at St. Joe Prep, he won a contest by naming the school’s athletic teams, the Eagles.

“Not only has he been a wonderful patron and a wonderful role model to his children and grandchildren, but he left us a legacy, and he left us the Eagle as well,” he said.

“He was a very private man who loved to give back to his community, and he was a perfect example of what a successful business person could mean to his hometown. I think everybody could learn from his generosity,” said Bill Conway of Conway-Heaton Chevrolet and chairman of the Bardstown Industrial Development Corporation.

County Judge-Executive Dean Watts said that Newcomb was a “great corporate citizen” of Nelson County. He said the family company had a modest beginning, but “it’s monstrous now” with 70 or more FiveStar convenience stores and filling stations across Central Kentucky.

Alice Heaton, who managed My Old Kentucky Home State Park for more than 20 years, said Newcomb and his company were big supporters of the park and “The Stephen Foster Story” outdoor drama. They started what became the Stephen Foster Association’s concert series.

Heaton remembers how amused she would be to see the millionaire owner of the FiveStar chain walk into a local FiveStar and stand in line like any other customer to get a sandwich, and the cashiers didn’t know who they were waiting on. He just took pride in watching his workers and his customers.

“I’d say, ‘Oh, you’re at it again!’ and he’d just start laughing,” she said. “He just got such satisfaction in what he had built.”

“He was a big, generous, kind man,” she said. “He was very understated, very unpretentious.”

Newcomb earned many honors for his philanthropy and business leadership.

He served on the board of Wilson & Muir Bank for 42 years and was a board member of Bethlehem.

His family said in his obituary that he liked being outdoors and reading history, and was a wonderful storyteller with a sense of humor.

He was married to Edna Boone Newcomb, and after her death, married Sally O’ Daniel Johnson. He had three daughters, Ann, Cathy and Barbara; two sons, Jack and Bill, who manage Newcomb Oil; three stepsons, Pat, Paul and Daniel Johnson; a sister, Fran McCoy of Bardstown; and 25 grandhildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

A celebration of Newcomb’s life was held Saturday at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, where he was a parishioner.