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Harry Walter Colmery

Born: December 11, 1890, Braddock, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Married: Minerva Harriet Hiserodt, on December 20, 1919, in Illinois. Died: August 23, 1979, Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas.Harry Colmery

Harry Walter Colmery was born December 11, 1890, in Braddock, Pennsylvania.  He was one of four children born to Walter and Flora Colmery.  His father owned a local grocery store, where Harry worked as a youth.  He was an industrious young man. In addition to working at the grocery store, he also had a newspaper route and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad.  After high school, Harry attended Oberlin College and graduated in 1913.  He attended law school at the University of Pittsburgh, earning his degree in 1916.

He followed advice from a college friend and moved to Utah where he was admitted to the bar in 1917. His law career was disrupted when World War I began in 1917. He tried to enlist at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, but was declined since it was outside his region. He enlisted and was accepted at officer’s training camp at Presidio California. He served as an instructor and pursuit pilot with the army air service at Kelly Field and Carruthers Field in Texas. The American Legion was founded in March 1919 after the war. Colmery received an honorable discharge in April 1919 and soon became active in organizing posts in Utah.

He once again followed his friend's advice and moved to Topeka to practice law with the father of his college friend, John S. Dean. Colmery married his college sweetheart, Minerva Hiserodt, in Illinois, on December 20, 1919. Thee couple settled in Topeka and they had three children: Mary, Harry W., Jr., and Sarah Elizabeth.

Colmery'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. He was elected to a one-year term as national commander of the American Legion in 1936.  In the years following World War II, his name became well known in his hometown of Topeka, the state of Kansas, and the nation through his support of veterans and his involvement in the American Legion. Between World War I and World War II, he 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 World War II 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 after its introduction in Congress in January 1944, 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, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college students.  Another 5 million veterans attended vocational schools or participated in on-the-job training opportunities funded through the G. I. (Government Issue) Bill.  Other provisions of the G.I. Bill provided low interest loans for buying a home and unemployment pay known as 52/20 Club, which provided a payment of $20 a week for up to 52 weeks while veterans looked for jobs following their discharge.  

The Colmery-O'Neil Veterans Administration Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, is named for him, along with Ralph T. O'Neil, a Kansan who was the 13th commander of the American Legion.

Material from the Harry Colmery Collection are available on Kansas Memory, including testimony he presented on behalf of the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944 (G. I. Bill).

Colmery and his family lived in Topeka until his death in 1979 at the age of 88.

Entry: Colmery, Harry Walter

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2011

Date Modified: May 2020

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.