The Story of Kansas

Topeka lawyer, WWI vet authored GI Bill

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

A lawyer from Topeka, Harry Colmery was often listened to and consulted by the nation’s presidents.

He defended the “Birdman of Alcatraz” and at one time headed the American Legion.

But he is best known for helping to draft the GI Bill in longhand on hotel stationery in 1943 while staying at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The bill forever changed the quality of life for many Americans, providing many returning World War II servicemen loans for homes, businesses and education.

Colmery was born Dec. 11, 1890, in Braddock, Pa. He received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1913 and in 1916 earned his law degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

At Oberlin, he paid for his education by working in a section gang and as a clerk for the Union Railroad Co. While studying to become a lawyer, he taught at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Colmery then served in the Army during World War I. He moved to Topeka in 1919. From 1936 to 1937, Colmery served as the national commander of the American Legion. He also served as a delegate to the national Republican convention in 1936 when Alf Landon was nominated for president.

When Colmery drew up the first drafts of the GI Bill, his key points were educational opportunities, loan guarantees and $200 a week in unemployment pay for those who qualified.

In testimony about the bill to Congress on Jan. 10, 1944, Colmery said:

“The opportunity to earn a competent livelihood for oneself and those dependent upon him is the very cornerstone upon which the other freedoms and liberties depend.æ.æ.æ. It is most important that we restore that opportunity to those who have sacrificed it on our behalfæ.æ.æ. (that) we protect them through the grave periods of both personal and national readjustment.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law on June 22, 1944, and millions of veterans began utilizing the benefits.

In 1959, Colmery once again had a moment of national fame when he was appointed to represent Robert F. Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

In 1975, he received the American Legion Distinguished Service Award. He died in 1979.

The Colmery-O’Neil Veterans Administration Medical Center in Topeka is named in part, for him.