As a teenager Clyde Coombs was at a crossroads.

Growing up in an orphanage as a tough, street-smart kid, Coombs could’ve easily stumbled onto a darker path in life, one that he fears would’ve led him to prison or worse.

But pulling him in the other direction was University High School, where his teachers, coaches, and student activities revealed another way out of his lost childhood. He found a family at U-High, a connection that remains so strong today that he’s now helping current students with his own scholarship fund. It helps Pioneers pay for extracurricular activities and sports and to go to college.

“There’s a narrow path in life sometimes, and you can fall off and go a bad way,” Coombs said. “Hopefully, my scholarship will help those students stay on a better path.”

After graduating U-High in 1963, Coombs would go on to distinguished service in the military and a long career at Caterpillar, a self-made man who also pursued personal passions like art, cooking, and philanthropy. He’s a world traveler and a collector of cars and art.

Even Coombs himself is surprised that he’s made it this far.

Around age 5 he moved into the Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School (ISSCS) in Normal, founded in 1865 as an orphanage for children of families broken apart by war. Coombs had to grow up in a hurry, as he helped watch over some of the younger “homers” at ISSCS.

“As a kid, I never had a childhood,” Coombs says.

The older ISSCS children attended U-High, a chance to escape the stigma of being a “homer.” Coombs kept busy on the track, football, and swim teams at U-High. He was even Homecoming king.

“I looked forward to getting on that bus every day,” Coombs said, praising the school for educating children from wealthier local families alongside him and the other ISSCS kids.

But Coombs’ past was pulling him away. He was constantly on the verge of running away—this time for good. He’s grateful to this day for teachers like Max Honn who convinced him to finish high school, and to complete his Eagle Scout rank.

“Thank God they did. That’s why I’m here,” said Coombs, who was inducted into the Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2012.

On graduation night Coombs was given $25 and a new suit. His wanderlust took him on a hitchhiking trek to Wisconsin, where he planned to pursue a college degree in art before he was drafted in 1964.

Giving back

His military service during the Vietnam War included stints as a guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and President Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. His primary job was doing police work and investigations for the military, which led to a security job at Peoria-based Caterpillar. He retired from Caterpillar in 2001 after 32 years with the company.

In 2011 he created the Clyde B. Coombs Endowment Fund at U-High, with a dual purpose and partly to honor ISSCS. It provides grants to students who are unable to meet the financial expectations of extracurricular activities. It also provides a college scholarship to a U-High senior each year. Coombs attends the U-High awards assembly each May, and he has a big (and growing) collection of letters from the grateful students he’s helped.

“I like to see people who aren’t at the top of the class but yet they’re trying hard,” he said.

Coombs recently increased his support for U-High, one of Illinois State’s Lab Schools, by making a seven-figure estate gift that will bolster his endowment fund. That means even more students will learn at U-High, like Coombs did, the values that can lead to an extraordinary life, no matter where that life began.

One of those values is giving back.

“It’s very rewarding to see the young people and to know that I had a hand in helping them accomplish that,” Coombs said. “Giving without receiving—it gives you a nice feeling when you do that.”

Coombs encourages other Pioneers to consider making a gift to his endowed fund, or to establish their own scholarship. He also reminds those considering a gift to check with their employer to see if matching gift funds are available, as they were with his former employer, Caterpillar.

Learn more and make your own gift at

Ryan Denham can be reached at