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James Douglas Harcombe was born May 3, 1882, in New York City. Harcombe came to Clemson in 1920 to replace Shorty Schilletter, who resigned as mess officer of the college in 1919. Harcombe came from the Port of New York Army Hospital where he had served as chief mess officer feeding the wounded soldiers returning from European battlefields.
From October 11-14 1924, the last and largest student walk-out in Clemson history took place and it involved Harcombe. Student gripes about the quality of food in the mess had spiraled out of control when the cadet emissary sent to the commandant, Colonel Otis R. Cole, to ask permission for a student meeting was accused of having "liquor on his breath".
He was hauled immediately before the discipline committee and suspended for a year. Outraged cadets were refused permission to meet regarding the expelled, a popular student who was senior class president and captain of the football team, but they met on Riggs Field anyway and drafted a petition demanding better food, the dismissal of mess officer J.D. Harcombe, and reinstatement of their dismissed classmate.
According to Reel's "The High Seminary", the complaints against Harcombe involved hemp allegedly found in apples and a fly in the syrup. The charge against the mess officer remained unproven.
When Clemson President Samuel Earle refused their demands, promising only to continue investigating the mess allegations, 500 cadets left campus on the evening of October 14th in protest. The walk-out resulted in twenty-three dismissals and 112 suspensions, as well as sixty-five honorable discharges from various classes, and the withdrawal from school of thirty-six students who were unwilling to face the punishments awaiting them when they returned to campus. Although the board of trustees commended Earle for not relinquishing his authority to student demands, the toll on the school was a lingering discontent and unwanted bad publicity.
In 1932, when a chapter of Blue Key was created, Harcombe was one of the initial members.
Captain Harcombe, after serving as mess officer at Clemson for 26 years, died at home on November 11, 1946, following several months of poor health at the age of 64. He was interred on Cemetery Hill in Clemson on November 12, 1946.
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