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East Bluff Honors Beloved Community Center Director Jim Combs

Jim Combs stand near the plaque that will adorn the newly rededicated "Combs Hall" gymnasium at the East Bluff Community Center.
Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
Jim Combs stand near the plaque that will adorn the newly rededicated "Combs Hall" gymnasium at the East Bluff Community Center.

Jim Combs may be stepping down as director of the East Bluff Community Center he helped start, but he'll always be a huge part of it.East Bluff community members surprised the beloved neighborhood leader with a ceremony in his honor Wednesday evening, culminating with the renaming of the community center's gym to "Combs Hall."

Combs has lived his entire life just a couple blocks away from the old St. Bernard's School where the East Bluff Community Center is now housed. He taught at the old Greeley School before retiring after a 40-year career with Peoria Public Schools, only to pick up the torch as director of the new community center in the heart of the East Bluff neighborhood in 2013.

Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU
Tim Shelley / WCBU

The Rev. Simon Jolly of the Prince of Peace Missionary Baptist Church has known Combs since 2000. Jolly said Combs was the first person to introduce himself after he first took a job in Peoria, and invited him to join a neighborhood association.

That eventually blossomed into a two-decade long friendship, with Combs often bringing Jolly along for the ride on his various community projects, such as a youth basketball league and food pantry.

"I don't know what I would have done without him. He's there, and he still continues to be there," said Jolly. "I cannot believe, even when he said he was going to retire and he was down to part-time and everything, that he was going to step down. Still don't believe it."

Josh Cannon is a veteran of the youth basketball league. Now 22, he spent much of his childhood in the East Bluff Community Center gym.

"Because of this gym, I have lifelong friends," he said.

Combs also helped Cannon when he was struggling to complete his Eagle Scout project while also studying for the ACTs.

"Somehow, some way, Jim made a way," Cannon said. "There was a room in here that needed to be redone, and with his help, and with my dad's help, we redid a whole room. And it just looks so amazing. And he let me honor it. And he let me rename it the 'Eagle Room,' in honor of me."

Cannon said he considers Combs to be family.

Chris McAfee said the East Bluff Community Center was "like home." He helped start the East Bluff basketball program.

"What Jim taught me stayed with me forever," McAfee said. "Jim was like, I would say, my second dad. We would talk all the time. I appreciate Jim for even just believing in me."

State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, presented Combs with a proclamation passed by the Illinois General Assembly to honor his work in the East Bluff neighborhood.

For his part, Combs said he's confident in people like Kari Jones, who was recently hired as the center's first full-time director, to carry the torch forward.

"Eventually, in time, this place is going to be formidable," said Combs. "And that's all that matters."

Combs said if he's ever needed, he's only a phone call away--as long as it doesn't involve pounding any more nails.

"Call me. I'm always available," he said.

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.