Steve Coleman, Midwest City
“Thank you for your service” is a statement of gratitude often expressed to men and women who have served our country in military service. More often than not, the sentiment is coupled with a warm smile and a hardy handshake.
Oklahoma attorney Steve Coleman is part of a team that offers more — much more — in gratitude to United States veterans. Steve is chairman of the board of directors of Oklahoma Honor Flights (OHF). It is estimated that nationally 750 World War II veterans die each day, therefore the mission of Oklahoma Honor Flights is simple: Transport Oklahoma veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.
“Oklahoma Honor Flights was organized in the fall of 2009 as an official affiliate of Honor Flight Network Inc. in Springfield, Ohio. Oklahoma became the 31st state to stand up as a “hub” to support the national effort. Oklahoma Honor Flights is a not-for-profit 501 (c)(3) volunteer organization created solely to honor Oklahoma’s vet-erans.”1 With the completion of the June 5, 2013, flight, OHF has taken more than 1,400 World War II veterans on 15 flights. There are more than 200 Oklahoma World War II and 105 Korean Conflict veteran applications on file awaiting this opportunity. OHF has plans for two more flights in 2013 to honor Oklahoma men and women who helped change the world 65 to 70 years ago.
Led by Al Willoughby of Midwest City, Steve was part of the team collectively deciding in 2009 that Oklahoma World War II heroes should not have to travel to Texas to be honored for their world-saving heroics. In 2009, Mr. Willoughby had traveled to Texas to participate in an Honor Flight sponsored by Dallas Honor Flights to visit the newly opened World War II Memorial. Mr. Willoughby was so moved by the experience, he turned to his Midwest City friends to begin an Oklahoma Chapter of Honor Flights. In November 2009, Gov. Brad Henry held a press conference at the State Capitol and urged all Oklahomans to support the newly created Oklahoma Honor Flights and its effort to honor Oklahoma World War II veterans in this special and unique way. Since 2009, individuals and leaders from across the state have generously and enthusiastically supported Oklahoma Honor Flights.
Steve is quick to praise the team that works tirelessly to coordinate the Honor Flights. He tells personal anecdotes acknowledging the efforts of the board of directors. Steve applauds the work of Rep. Gary W. Banz and his wife, Linda, of Midwest City, who review and manage almost all of the paperwork: applications from volunteers, veterans, guardians and donors, along with flight details, tour itinerary and scheduling. The board of directors solicits gifts from individuals and organizations to finance the Honor Flights and purchase the tokens of appreciation given to the veterans at the “Sendoff Reception” the night before the flight. Donors include businesses, schools and organizations, individuals and families, and a fair number of financial gifts in memory and honor of loved veterans. Steve estimates that of the approximate $2 million raised for honor flights, more than one-third of it can be traced directly to the generosity and creativity of Oklahoma lawyers.
The genesis for Steve Coleman’s penchant for teamwork and community service probably began in school at Del City High School. As a freshman, young Steve idolized the upper class football players, especially a senior player named Bob Kalsu. Mr. Kalsu took a liking to Steve, remembering his name and encouraging his athletic participation. Mr. Kalsu returned to Del City in the summers to call evening practice for the high school players. He would direct the players through agility and running drills, dividing the players for games of touch football. Mr. Kalsu was confident and commanding, a born leader. He made an impression on young Steve, who watched as Mr. Kalsu was recruited by Bud Wilkinson to play for the Sooners in 1963 and matured into one of the best offensive linemen ever to play for the Sooners. Mr. Kalsu was later drafted in the eighth round by the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League. In early 1969, after his rookie season with the Bills, Mr. Kalsu, a man of integrity, honored his promise to satisfy his ROTC obligation by serving his country on active duty.
On July 21, 1970, James Robert Kalsu became the only American professional athlete to die in combat in Vietnam. Only seven active pro athletes would serve in Vietnam: six football players and a bowler.2 Kalsu left behind a wife, daughter and son, who was born two days after his death. He also left behind many who mourned his death, among them a young Steve Coleman who treasured Kalsu’s memory and his legacy.
Years later, Steve Coleman heard Al Willoughby present the idea to honor America’s servicemen and women by creating Oklahoma Honor Flights. Steve Coleman thought of Mr. Kalsu and long ago, carefree summer evenings filled with football practice and promise, of leadership and friendship, of dreams and deaths of men taken too early from loved ones and friends. Oklahoma Honor Flights, thought Coleman, would honor Mr. Kalsu and others like him who sacrificed so much for our country. The heroes of the greatest generation deserve no less.
Steve Coleman’s eyes light up when he talks about Oklahoma Honor Flights. He describes the Sendoff Reception, held the night before the flights, which includes a “Parade of Patriots” as each veteran walks or is assisted into the reception hall by a young man or woman, usually a member of ROTC or a high school student. The name and picture of each veteran is shown on the big screen monitor and details of the veteran’s military service are provided. The parade is interrupted by frequent applause from proud friends and family. As each veteran stands face to face with his young escort, the student hands the soldier a commemorative Oklahoma coin in thanks and recognition for service to our country. In return, the veteran gives the student a pocket Constitution, provided by the Oklahoma Bar Association, symbolizing the freedoms embodied in the U.S. Constitution they fought to protect. The veterans pause to remember their fellow soldiers who did not return home from war.
The charter flight leaves early the next day taking the veterans, their guardians for the flights and volunteers to Washington D.C., for the day trip. Steve says that “something magical always happens on each trip.” He never knows what it will be beforehand but something spontaneous and special happens every time. He tells of the time school children from Corpus Christi, Texas, surprised the veterans with an impromptu chorus of “God Bless America” and then formed a line to personally shake hands and hug every veteran. He tells of crowds parting at war memorials and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to allow the veterans to move to the front of the line. He tells of teary-eyed hugs given to the veterans from strangers who are too choked up to speak a word and of hats and baseball caps removed from heads and respectfully placed over hearts when the veterans pass by. All day long, the veterans receive recognition and thanks for their service. They are photographed and asked to tell their stories. On the day of their Honor Flight, each veteran enjoys a day of glory.
Steve Coleman shies away from personal recognition for his service. He would rather encourage Oklahomans to make a donation to Oklahoma Honor Flights. He would rather talk about Oklahoma Honor Flights and Oklahoma veterans, the work of Rep. Gary and Linda Banz and the OHF Board of Directors, and the contributions of many attorneys who have supported OHF such as Jami Antonisse, Jim Waldo, Bob Nelon, Mack Martin, Andria Stark Heafy, Steve Barghols and Steve’s own son Steve J. Coleman, to name only a few. Steve’s daughter, Amanda Busch, who practices in San Francisco, flew home to Oklahoma to participate in an honor flight to honor both of her World War II veteran grandfathers. Retired Judge John Amick was also an honoree on a flight!
Steve Coleman has been an OBA member for 39 years, officing in Midwest City. He and his wife, Lori, have six children between them, two of whom are attorneys. He is the proud grandfather of five grandchildren! Steve’s work with Oklahoma Honor Flights provides him the opportunity to work with other great volunteers in honoring the heroes of the greatest generation for their service to the United States. In a smaller and more personal way, it also provides Steve the opportunity to honor the memory and legacy of his friend Bob Kalsu.
1. “Oklahoma Honor Flights” by James R. Waldo, The Oklahoma County Bar Briefcase, December 2012, p.1, Vol.44, No.12.
2.“A Name On the Wall,” Sports Illustrated, July 23, 2001, http://goo.gl/4OAAFa.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Nov. 2, 2013 -- Vol. 84, No. 28