Michael Combs was many things — a professor, a minister, a mentor, an activist — but, above all, he was a larger-than-life personality.
UNL’s political science department announced Combs’s death in a tweet on Monday, Sept. 2. Kevin Smith, who worked with Combs in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s political science department for 25 years, said Combs has left a legacy among his students and colleagues alike.
Combs received his doctorate from Washington University in 1978, according to the political science website. Smith said Combs started his tenure at UNL the same year. His research included judicial politics and constitutional law, African-American politics and urban politics.
In 2001, he received the chancellor’s Fulfilling the Dream Award, which honors those who promote the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at UNL, according to the award’s page.
After the 2014 shooting of African-American teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Combs organized the panel discussion “Ferguson and Beyond: Race and Police Killings.” At the time, he told Nebraska Today he wanted to have a more in-depth discussion than what is typically presented in the media.
“[Combs] would put on events that would … have people come together and address these issues in a constructive and meaningful way,” Smith said in the article.
Outside of UNL, Combs’s accomplishments include an award for best book on urban politics from the American Political Science Association in 2001 and the 1996 Liberty Bell Award from the Lincoln Bar Association. He also served as the president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, an organization that promotes the political aspirations of people of African descent, according to its website.
The impact Combs had goes beyond awards and titles, according to Temi Onayemi, a senior psychology and political science double major and president of the Afrikan Peoples Union. He said Combs was a source of wisdom to those who make up the organization.
“In some way, many of the black leaders on our campus were touched by him directly or indirectly,” he said in a text. “It’s just the type of weight his name and his influence had.”
Onayemi said he met Combs through another student who admired the professor. After that, the two would go to Combs’ office to chat with him about “everything and anything.”
“He gave me someone to look up to at the university,” he said. “He was the first black professor I met at this school, and he addressed certain issues involving race that were happening … He also inspired me and challenged me to be the change I wanted to see.”
Smith said Combs made an impression on his students and, as a minister, “really knew how to hold the attention of a group of undergraduates.”
“He had a strong personality and such a strong voice; it was kind of mesmerizing to listen to it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d stand outside his classroom door and just listen to him lecture.”
Smith said Combs wasn’t just a good colleague and a good teacher but a genuinely good man, and he will be missed.
“[Combs’] biggest legacy is the students he sent out into the world,” Smith said. “[He] led by example, and that leaves something for the rest of us to live up to. There’s literally thousands of people running across this country that Michael has touched in some way and in a very positive way. [He’s] pushed them on the trajectory of the life they’re leading.”