Topeka’s Memorial to Harry Colliery

(Frank) Here we are again. (Deb) The statues that have been going up on Kansas Avenue, of course, in tribute to these remarkable Kansans and of course we know this name because of the Colmery-O’Neil Medical Center or the VA Medical Center in Topeka. But there are a lot of people, younger generations, that don’t know the name Harry Colmery and, Frank, you would have to reach a long way to find somebody who had a greater impact on the lives of Americans than Harry Colmery. (Frank) That’s very true, especially the VA hospitals. (Deb) And the GI Bill. It’s an incredible legacy. It’s an incredible legacy and Kansas, of course we’ve talked about this many times, the contributions of veterans we have. I was just looking at this the other day; our percentage of veterans living in Kansas is still greater than most states. We have a very strong tradition of service and Harry Colmery is one of those people who valued that and really wanted to pay back to the veterans. (Frank) In the 900 block of Kansas Avenue is where you will see a great memorial to him. When you are in the city, be sure to go there and take a look at it. (Deb) Let’s take a look at the life of this very famous and very deserving Kansan. (Frank) Harry Walter Colmery was born in 1890, in Braddock, Pennsylvania. He was an industrious young man who worked in his dad’s grocery store, had a newspaper route and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. Harry attended Oberlin College and the University of Pittsburgh law school. His career was interrupted by America’s entry into World War I. During the war, Colmery served in the Army Air Service as an instructor and pursuit pilot. Afterward, Harry moved to Topeka to practice law with John S. Dean. Harry’s years in the Army had a big impact on him and he was an advocate for veterans the rest of his life. He became involved in the American Legion at the local, state, and national levels, serving as national commander. In the years following World War II, the name Harry Colmery was a “household word.” He was a member of the American Legion’s national legislative committee and worked to change regulations to allow veterans to be treated at Veteran’s Hospitals for non-service related illnesses and to allow for the expansions of the veteran’s hospital system. During WWII, he was involved in the debate of how to assist the millions of veterans that would be returning to the work force at the end of the war. Many feared a return to the Great Depression with men and women who had served their country joining the ranks of the unemployed after they were discharged. Colmery is credited with writing the draft of what became the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more popularly known as the G. I. Bill of Rights. He then worked for its adoption, and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22, 1944. The G. I. Bill provided books, tuition, and a monthly stipend for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two million veterans attended college on the G.I. Bill, and it is estimated that in 1947, half of all college students were veterans. Another 5 million veterans attended vocational schools or participated in on-the-job training opportunities. The Colmery-O’Neil Veterans Administration Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, is named for him.

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