Architect of the GI Bill immortalized in Kansas

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Harry W. Colmery changed the world. The American Legion past national commander from Topeka, Kan., can be credited for such phenomena as averting economic disaster when millions of U.S. troops returned home from World War II, democratizing higher education, making home ownership affordable for average Americans, driving forward racial equality, establishing an all-volunteer military, revolutionizing health care for veterans, and turning the American dream into an American reality for generations. He drafted the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – the GI Bill – which propelled the United States to superpower status, launching an era of U.S. prosperity that continues today.

Until 2013, however, Colmery’s legacy was hardly remembered in Topeka, Kan., where he lived and worked for more than 60 years. On Wednesday, 72 years after he watched President Franklin D. Roosevelt sign the GI Bill into law, Colmery was immortalized. More than 200 veterans, military personnel, family members and business leaders attended dedication ceremonies for the Harry Colmery Memorial Plaza near the the Kansas state capitol building. The plaza features a statue of Colmery saluting men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces, with a panel of bronze figures behind him depicting the civilian professions they would assume after discharge.

“The true measure of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act and Harry W. Colmery is how they transformed the way a nation treats its returning veterans after war,” Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk, former commanding officer of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, said at the dedication ceremony. “The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act changed forever the expectation of a higher education in this country. By providing every veteran an opportunity to choose college or vocational school, the GI Bill turned college from a luxury for the rich into an expectation for generations.”

American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett told a standing-room-only crowd that took shade from the 100-degree heat under a big tent on the blocked-off street, that, “Harry Colmery represents the best of what it means to be an American veteran, an engaged citizen and servant to others. (He) saw it as his personal duty to fulfill what we in The American Legion call an ‘individual obligation to community, state and nation.’ He fulfilled that duty at every level – from his local church to Boy Scouts, the Topeka Chamber of Commerce, the state Bar Association and The American Legion, to name just a few. And, as he was doing so, Harry Colmery just happened to shift the course of human history.”

Pat Michaelis was involved in a downtown project to erect statues honoring Topeka’s most distinguished figures when he read an article in the local newspaper about Colmery and all that he did to change America. Realizing that Colmery’s name had to be added to the list of Topekans who would be cast in bronze and positioned along the sidewalks and in pocket parks in the city, he moved quickly to correct the omission. Michaelis was so moved by the Colmery story, he vowed to personally lead the fundraising effort. Private donors, American Legion posts and Sons of The American Legion squadrons raised more than $400,000, exceeding expectations. “Not only did he raise money for a statue,” explained Vince Frye, President of the Downtown Topeka Foundation, “…he raised money for an entire plaza.”

The committee worked closely with The American Legion in Kansas and with the Colmery family, many of whom were in Topeka Wednesday to help dedicate the memorial plaza.

Mina Steen, a granddaughter who worked closely with the memorial committee throughout the project, described Harry Colmery as more than a figure in history. “First, Harry Colmery was a tremendous statesman, advocate, attorney, businessman and leader,” she told the crowd, holding back tears. “He also was, splendidly and simply, our grandfather. His eyes lit up whenever he saw us. He delighted in our stories. He bored us with his. He took me, first class, to California as a girl, and he rode the Matterhorn with us at Disneyland when we thought he was beyond ancient. I think he was 75.”

One niece, 96-year-old Jean Roberts, attended the ceremony. She was in Washington in 1943 and 1944 when her uncle was holing up in the Mayflower Hotel to write what became known as “the greatest legislation” of the 20th century. “She is one person who knew him well,” Steen said. “She was close by him during the time period when he was drafting the GI Bill.”

In fact, the day after he had finished drafting the GI Bill, Steen explained, Colmery called his niece and asked if he could come over for dinner. “She said he had gone through seven or eight pencils. She said he needed to rest.”

To his family, he was recalled as a warm, loving patriarch – one who never got very far away from his higher professional and public service callings. “He had a sense of humor and an opinion on most everything. He did not need much sleep. He drove tirelessly, still working at his law firm and running an insurance business, planning to go to Europe once the exchange rate improved, when he passed away at the age of 88 at the American Legion convention.”

“He was a living example of every founding principle of The American Legion – support for veterans, strong national security, mentorship for youth and American patriotism,” American Legion Past National Commander and current Department of Kansas Adjutant Jimmie Foster said.

Now, his legacy is cast in bronze so that future generations will understand what one individual can accomplish for his community, state and nation.

“In all the years that our family has witnessed grateful veterans expressing their appreciation for the GI Bill… and how it transformed their lives, we simultaneously wondered how to preserve that story so that it might inspire others,” Steen told the crowd at the ceremony. “Our prayer is that it will stand over time, commemorating a great human effort and political decision that served our veterans and country ever so well. Grandfather would be very pleased.”