Mary Sanchez

Topeka lawyer Harry Colmery built today’s United States with his G.I. Bill

Mina Steen of Mission Hills has become the steward of Harry W. Colmery’s papers. She welcomes efforts to honor her grandfather, the primary author of the G.I. Bill, with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mina Steen of Mission Hills has become the steward of Harry W. Colmery’s papers. She welcomes efforts to honor her grandfather, the primary author of the G.I. Bill, with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. rsugg@kcstar.com

What if you were told that a Topeka lawyer was largely responsible for a seismic shift in American upward mobility?

That, in fact, one man is credited with sparking the building of the modern middle class? Would you know his name?

It’s not likely. Few people have been taught the contribution of Harry W. Colmery, the primary author of the G.I Bill. The lack of awareness is offensive to Colmery’s legacy.

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 effectively 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, in what it meant to take part in a democratic society.

If not for Colmery’s work — he was a former national commander of the American Legion — America as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist. It’s a message to consider for Veterans Day.

Colmery, a World War I veteran, is way past due for national recognition. To that end, the most-sustained and well-organized effort in decades is underway to have him posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Colmery died in 1979.

A pocket park with a statue of Colmery should be completed by May in downtown Topeka.

“The G.I Bill transformed the country,” said Pat Michaelis, who is helping to raise the final funds for the Topeka park. “It made us the super power that we are today.”

The comment isn’t a stretch. More people just need to know about it.

World War II veterans often are called “the Greatest Generation.” The moniker suffers the taint of myth. Their story is often retold as if their postwar achievements were due to being more noble than service members from eras prior or since.

A more accurate accounting is that the generation seized a carefully crafted opportunity entrusted to them by Congress and returned the favor to America tenfold in civic commitments.

Colmery’s bill, which organized the ideas of American Legion leaders, was the leverage plied by military veterans.

It’s a government program that didn’t create dependence. Rather, it spurred an active citizenry who gave back in higher tax payments because they earned more, and through a level of civic engagement unseen from previous generations.

The bill didn’t become law through altruistic foresight alone. There also was great fear for the unstable postwar economy.

Colmery’s work with the American Legion gave him firsthand knowledge of how poorly many veterans had fared after World War I. Maimed from war, many had little help in returning to civilian life. The Great Depression only added to their struggles.

In 1932, 20,000 unemployed veterans had marched to Washington, seeking promised compensation for their service that had never materialized. President Herbert Hoover called out federal troops, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and ran them off.

The image is said to have greatly offended and haunted Colmery, but he also knew that the numbers of returning military from World War II were vast — 15 million soldiers and another 10 million civilians who had been employed in wartime jobs. What would happen if all tried to re-enter the job market at once?

The G.I. Bill’s education benefits delayed that mass influx.

More than 50 percent of World War II veterans — 7.8 million men and women — used the education benefits, according to the book “Soldiers to Citizens” by Suzanne Mettler. By 1947, veterans were 49 percent of America’s college students. Ten years after the war ended, 2.2 million had attended college through the G.I. Bill.

More than double that number used the vocational, apprenticeship and other non-college trainings offered under the bill. Compared with nonveterans, veterans’ income grew 40 percent from 1944 to 1951, according to census data.

No one fathomed the bill would be as popular as it was, and universities were overwhelmed with new students.

But for the first time in American history, a college education became something that was widely attainable, not reserved for America’s elite, but by anyone who had served for more than 90 days and was honorably discharged.

Many World War II veterans simply could not have done it on their own. They weren’t of the social class that attended college in that era. Nor could many have afforded new homes without the low interest the G.I Bill afforded them. That aspect of the bill enabled a massive building boom. It fueled a migration out of cities, becoming the foundation for suburban America today, with its strong public school districts and prosperous outer-ring cities that make up every metropolitan area in the nation.

It was a remarkable return on the $14.5 billion the government had spent by 1955 on education and training provisions, according to Mettler’s book.

If we can spend 200 to 300 billion to teach our men and women to kill, why quibble over a billion or so to help them to have the opportunity to earn economic independence?

Harry W. Colmery, testifying for the legislation he authored, the G.I. Bill

And yet, the man behind the vision remains largely unknown.

Medal of Freedom movement

It’s a fact that has bedeviled Joseph C. McGrath for nearly 10 years now. He’s the main architect of recent efforts to award Colmery the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

About eight years ago, McGrath serendipitously met the granddaughter of Colmery at a cocktail party shortly after he had finished reading “Soldiers to Citizens.” At the time, he also was the president of Lenexa-based Grantham University, which works with many overseas and returning veterans.

McGrath’s interest in all-things military is borne of a lifelong passion for history and his family background. His grandfather served in World War I, his father in World War II and he served three years in Vietnam.

“People don’t appreciate the sacrifices the people who go into the military make, and then they come back and they don’t ask for anything,” McGrath said.

We have taught our youth how to wage war. We must also teach them how to live useful and happy lives in freedom, justice and democracy.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking to Congress, urging passing of G.I. Bill

Mina Steen, Colmery’s granddaughter who lives in Mission Hills, welcomes McGrath’s effort. Steen has become the steward of her grandfather’s papers.

She has seen many efforts to honor her grandfather come and go.

Then- Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas pressed for a Presidential Medal of Freedom for Colmery in 2004. The American Legion has long backed efforts. U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, who died in 2013, was involved for years. And former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas has been a steady presence, this year sending two letters to President Barack Obama and calling the White House on behalf of Colmery.

McGrath used connections to get a letter to the desk of Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, with the hope of reaching Obama’s ear. And lobbying continues to press both Republican and Democratic channels. More outreach is beginning to the 2016 presidential contenders of both parties.

McGrath said it’s unlikely Colmery will be honored this year, as it is likely the choices have already been made.

In a way, honoring Colmery is giving McGrath’s father’s generation its due. McGrath’s father used the G.I. Bill to attend Harvard. He was wounded in a battle befitting Hollywood screen treatment. A concert pianist before the war, McGrath’s father used the benefits to attend Harvard law school, his musical career cut short as a good portion of his hand had been shot off.

And Steen’s father, a prisoner of war in World War II, also used the benefits. Ask within many American families, and the positive impact of the G.I Bill is there.

The bill has been reauthorized and revised numerous times by Congress to update for current costs of a college education, to guard against fraud in payments and shift to changes when the draft was no longer in place.

Far lower percentages of the U.S. public have a connection to military service than in Colmery’s generation. That fact has stymied broader understandings of the bill’s longitudinal impact on the economy and the American psyche.

Today, the bill’s benefits are often seen as a recruiting tool, but it still enhances the ability of veterans to lead productive lives long after they leave active duty.

It’s a legacy that Colmery would cherish. Colmery died at age 88 in a Houston hotel room. He was attending the national convention of his beloved American Legion.

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