An Accidental Naturalist

Jack Holcomb’s radio career started with a borrowed reel-to-reel tape recorder and one hastily made audition tape.

The late Bill Wheeler ’55, an old classmate and friend who had been out of school for a year, worked the afternoon shift at WEEU-AM in Reading, Pennsylvania. In October 1956, he called Holcomb to tell him that the station’s nighttime slot had suddenly opened up.

“Send me a tape right now,” Wheeler told him.

Holcomb, who had just graduated from Ithaca College that May with a degree in speech, scraped together the necessary equipment to record himself reading a few news stories and sent the tape to the station manager.

“The station manager called me and said, ‘We would like to give you a trial. Come on down,’” Holcomb recalled. “So I packed my suitcase and came down.”

The offer was for six weeks and paid $60 per week. Holcomb hosted the 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift, playing music and reading the news of the day. It was an ideal situation for him. A speech major and theatre minor, Holcomb had also stocked up on radio and television classes at Ithaca.

He was considering attending Boston University for grad school or pounding the pavement for acting gigs in New York City when Wheeler called, but he was eager to get married and start a family. Radio would provide him with the stability to do so.

By 1965 Holcomb was entrenched at WEEU. But his marriage was beginning to disintegrate, and the medium in which he worked was changing rapidly. Color television and rock ‘n’ roll were all the rage, hastening monumental shifts in culture and technology.

Amidst that turmoil, Holcomb found tranquility when station manager K. Richard Creitz asked him to take on a new assignment.

“How would you like to do a bird show?” Creitz asked.

At the time, Holcomb could identify a robin and a Canada goose, and that was about it. But he accepted the hosting job. The Bird Watching Society aired for only a half hour per day, and much of the content was provided by an ad agency in Baltimore.

When the agreement ended a few years later, Holcomb started his own show, Bird Talk. He joined the local bird club, collected field guides, and learned at the feet of local wildlife experts, precipitating an enduring appreciation for the natural world. He became known as the “Birdman of Fourth Street.”

“This came at a time in my life when I was looking for something, and I found it in nature,” Holcomb said. “A day in the field — watching the birds, listening to people — it’s wonderful therapy. It really is.”

Hosting nature programs changed Holcomb’s life and his career. What began as a professional obligation became a personal devotion. He soon began volunteering as a gatekeeper at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a nearby wildlife sanctuary and conservation center. And although he retired from full-time broadcasting in 2001, Holcomb can still be heard on the air at WEEU. His popular show, Jack’s Backyard, runs from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. every Saturday.

In recognition of his contributions to ornithology during his long career with WEEU, Holcomb was honored with the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology’s Earl Poole Award in 2008.

Now 79, Holcomb has no plans to completely retire from broadcasting or bird-watching. He remains an avid hiker, often traversing Penn’s Woods with his wife of 11 years, Lisa. He would like nothing more than to continue meshing his passions, traveling freely between the two worlds, spreading the message of one through the other.

“I have found fulfillment in some way,” Holcomb said. “Sometimes I consider myself more of a communicator than I do a naturalist. I guess I’m just an intermediary, passing the word along.”