Alumni Life

For the Love of Grace

Norman McCombs dedicates a campus space—and a lifetime—to his high school sweetheart

Norman and Grace McCombs at the grand opening of Grace Plaza. Photo: Onion Studio

By Charles Anzalone (MA ’00)

In the middle of a serene courtyard just south of Davis Hall on the North Campus sits a gold bust of a woman with luxurious hair and a gentle smile. “Grace N. Seitz McCombs” reads the inscription. “My Love. My Life. My Inspiration.” A short distance away is a bench with another inscription: “Love at first sight.”

These additions to the recently dedicated Grace Plaza were commissioned by Norman McCombs (BA ’68) as a tribute to his wife of 56 years—and as a testament to romance itself.

With a degree in mechanical engineering in hand, McCombs, now 79, went on to lead a life of singular achievement. His pressure swing adsorption invention introduced a means of air separation for the production of oxygen. First used for industrial purposes, such as wastewater treatment and metal cutting, it eventually eliminated the need to deliver containers of oxygen to patients by providing an endless supply of portable oxygen. It extended and improved the quality of life for millions of people around the world and saved billions in health care costs.

But that was just the beginning. McCombs went on to form his own company, travel the world, learn classical guitar, become a sculptor and open a fine-dining restaurant in Kenmore, N.Y., called Truffles. He received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama in 2011.

McCombs attributes his over-the-top success to a lifelong attempt to wow the girl he first saw walking down the hall at Amherst Central High School in the Buffalo suburbs in 1954. “She was my raison d’être,” McCombs says. “I’m not being humble. I had some God-given talents. But they came out because of her. That’s what men and women do. If you love someone, you want to impress them.”

Grace Plaza, with its geometric sidewalk design, starfish-shaped benches and mostly indigenous gardens (hydrangeas, Grace McCombs’ favorite flower, are prevalent), now provides an oasis for engineering students and all others who wander in. “If they’re a young couple or an individual, they might think of something else other than the problems of the world or a problem in the classroom,” McCombs says. “If they look at Grace, I want them to know that love is real.”

Take a look around Grace Plaza

Click on the photo and hold your mouse down for a 360-degree view of Grace Plaza, courtesy of University Communications photographer Douglas Levere and Google Maps. Scroll over the photo to zoom in and out.

Harriet Bedell Shea, BA 1966

Just want to thank Norman McCombs for inventing the oxygen concentrator.  My husband uses one every day.  He also has a small portable machine to carry giving him a quality of life that otherwise would be cumbersome and inconvenient.

Loved the love story too!