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Remembering Homer Cole

Jonathan Riley
Homer Cole is reflected off of a glass case containing medals he was awarded during World War II. -- FILE PHOTO

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Last week, Pittsburg lost one of its heroes — Homer Cole, World War II veteran and local legend who was the namesake of the Homer Cole Pittsburg Community Center, and who passed away last Friday at the age of 94.

Cole, born in Jasper, Missouri in 1925, graduated from Pittsburg High School in 1943, and began taking classes at Kansas State Teachers College, today known as Pittsburg State University.

“I went June, July and August, and got drafted in September,” Cole said in an interview more than a decade ago. “I was 18.”

Staff Sgt. Cole served with the 487th Bomb Group, stationed at an Eighth Air Force station near Suffolk, England, and flew a total of 19 missions over Germany, which generally took about 14 hours.

“I started out as a ball turret gunner, then became a tail gunner — I never saw where we were going, I could only see where we’d been,” he said. “Four of us in the crew were 18, and the officers were 21.”

On one of those missions, on April 10, 1945, Cole’s plane was badly damaged by enemy aircraft fire — which “went through my helmet and just nicked my skull,” Cole said — and forced to make an emergency landing in Brussels, Belgium.

“I thought the world had come to an end,” Cole said, recalling the episode decades later.

“We counted 124 holes in that plane,” he said. “We were carrying 20 bombs, and the flak hit everything except them.”

In later years, Cole would retell his stories from those days to captivated audiences ranging from longtime Morning Sun reporter Nikki Patrick, to attendees of the Warbird Fly-In at Atkinson Municipal Airport in 2016, to Meadowlark Elementary School students, who had the opportunity to hear from Cole last year.

For his military service, Cole earned the Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Two Purple Hearts, Air Combat Medal, European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal and Air Medal with Three Oakleaf Clusters.

After returning home and completing his college education, Cole would eventually receive a variety of other forms of recognition, from a Distinguished Service Award from PSU, to an award presented to him by Rep. Terry Calloway (R-Pittsburg) seven years ago this week, to a quilt presented to him in 2018 by the group Quilts of Valor, to a spot in the PSU Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame as a meritorious achievement legacy inductee.

Cole worked a variety of jobs, including time spent teaching and coaching basketball, football and baseball, as well as managing bowling alleys, including Holiday Lanes in Pittsburg, which he owned with his wife Evelyn in the 1970s and early ‘80s.

He also served on the Pittsburg City Commission from 1987 to 1991, including a term as mayor, and on a variety of local boards, including the Elks Lodge and Mt. Carmel Hospital Board. At the beginning of his time as a city commissioner, Cole was instrumental in starting the process of creating the community center that still bears his name today.

“Over the years, I've had many conversations with Homer, including over the phone, at ball games, and at breakfast at Otto's,” PSU President Steve Scott said last week after hearing of Cole’s death. “Every single time, I felt uplifted afterward as he praised our student athletes, our coaches, and the university. His encouragement and support made a difference to many, many people in this community. He will be missed.”

Despite his awards and achievements, Cole never took for granted the community to which he gave so much and which gave him so much in return.

“I consider myself lucky,” Cole said in an interview years ago, even before receiving many of his more recent forms of recognition. “The people of Pittsburg, if you’re honest and treat them right, they’ll do anything for you. It’s a great town to raise a family.”

Homer Cole chats with Pat Baker during the presentation of a quilt in honor of Cole's military service in 2018. -- KEESHA HERVEY/THE MORNING SUN