Harry W. Colmery is among the least-known greatest Americans.
The post-World War II prosperity that built the middle class and transformed America with a more educated and skilled workforce would not have occurred without the efforts of the Topeka lawyer.
Colmery, who died in 1979, is considered the architect of the GI Bill.
Wednesday, he received some of the applause due to him. Harry Colmery Memorial Park was unveiled in downtown Topeka. It was the 72nd anniversary of the signing of the bill.
More than 400 donors made the new park possible, much of it small donations by American Legion halls. It features a life-size statue of Colmery and a relief of six soldiers, depicted as they left the military and took on new roles in civilian society, roles that were made possible by the benefits they received through the GI Bill.
Fitting then that an honored guest for the unveiling was Maj. Gen. Paul Funk, former commander of the Big Red One, the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley. Funk is now serving at the Pentagon as assistant deputy chief of staff.
Funk attended the Warrior Games, where soldiers wounded in combat compete in athletics. The games, held annually at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., have become one way that soldiers are regaining their sense of purpose and physical strength.
Funk addressed a dinner gathering Tuesday night of supporters of the Topeka project and broader efforts to get Colmery awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The dinner was hosted by Mina Steen, granddaughter of Colmery, and other members of her family. Steen lives in Mission Hills.
A November 2015 column I wrote detailed those efforts and Colmery’s remarkable achievement in gaining congressional passage of the GI Bill.
Funk stressed that the bill is still aiding returning veterans through education benefits and in other ways. He highlighted the stories of three soldiers, all double and triple amputees from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. One man thought that he’d failed as a solider because he’d gotten wounded.
“ ‘Sir, all I want to do is get back to my squad,’ ” Funk said the triple amputee told him.
He spoke of how one of the men will soon graduate from Duke University with an MBA. Another recently married. Another is swimming three to five miles a day, part of his training for the Warrior Games.
“These are the young men and women that the GI Bill has helped today,” Funk said. “Understand how important that bill is.”
Also known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the bill gave millions of returning World War II veterans college educations, helped them buy homes and businesses, and trained even more in skilled apprenticeships.
It moved much of America from blue-collar jobs to more prosperous white-collar employment and infused a sense of civic duty that resulted in a broader swath of America being engaged in politics, in philanthropy and in what it meant to take part in a democratic society.