James Coleberd leaves impact of civic involvement, countless lives touched in medical and firefighting fields

Linda Coleberd silently looked at a pair of photographs of her late husband, James, in his cap and gown at John Wood Community College, recalling how he achieved his boyhood dream of attaining his fire service degree, following a 35-year career as a physician, fire chief, firefighter, musician and cave owner.

Coleberd, owner of Mark Twain Cave, said that her husband “was so proud of that fire service degree,” recalling that he was the oldest member of the graduating class at John Wood Community College in 2007.

Receiving an associate of arts degree in fire science marked a circular journey that began during his boyhood years in Liberty, following fire trucks and helping fight fires. He officially began his firefighting career in 1954 with the Liberty Fire Department.

Coleberd set up a memorial inside Cave Hollow West Winery stocked with items from her husband's collection, reflecting his life dedicated to serving fellow citizens, saving lives and being a committed husband and father. Coleberd fondly remembered when she first met her future husband in 1973 in Clinton.

Their first meeting

She was expecting her second child, Jeremy, when she arrived at the medical center. Her son was one of 1,147 babies Coleberd delivered during his medical career.

Working at the Wetzel Clinic and the Golden Valley Hospital in Clinton, Coleberd transitioned from medical care to the emergency room, caring for people who had suffered from agricultural accidents or vehicle accidents due to the traffic traveling to and from the Lake of the Ozarks on highways 13 and 7.

“He was quick, he was on his feet, he had the mental capacity to get in and get the work done or the project done or the emergency done,” she said.

Coleberd said that her husband was a man of diverse talents. He and his late brother, Robert, conducted tours of Mark Twain Cave as children. As they grew up, the brothers maintained a love for pipe organs. James was a talented player who couldn't build the complex instrument, while his brother built pipe organs but was unable to play, she said. The Coleberds had a 500-pipe organ constructed in their home, and Linda Coleberd said the music her husband played could be heard from their hilltop home overlooking Cave Hollow down to Sawyer's Creek.

Dedication to learning, service

James Coleberd majored in biology at William Jewell College. His dedication to firefighting ended up having a profound impact during English class.

“Right up front, he told his teacher that if a fire truck goes by, I'm getting up and leaving,” she said. “And the teacher told him that if he did that while he was working on an exam or something, she would fail him. And he did, and she did.”

Coleberd said, though he didn't graduate from William Jewell due to that incident, he donated to the college later in life. His education had many more chapters ahead, as he majored in zoology and pipe organs at the University of Kansas in 1961. He followed those studies up with a doctor of osteopathy degree in 1970 from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and an internship at the Capitol Regional Medical Center from 1970-1971. He also received 16 hours of credit for fire rescue courses at the University of Missouri, Missouri Firefighter I and II credits, and Medical Director: EMT and Paramedic Training from 1976.

During his studies and medical service, Coleberd continued to serve in his community's fire departments. He was a firefighter from 1954-1963 in Liberty and from 1955-1963 during college with the Lawrence Kansas Auxiliary Fire Department, Fire Chief with the Clinton Fire Department from 1963-1964, firefighter with the Kansas Auxiliary Fire Department, a firefighter with the Gashland Fire Department during medical school from 1966-1970 and a medical officer/firefighter with the Clinton Fire Department from 1970-2002.

A new chapter

Coleberd said she came to Missouri from Wyoming after her first husband passed away. She had crossed paths with James Coleberd a few times since he delivered her son Jeremy. One day, she decided to give him a call.

“We went out for coffee, and the rest was history,” she said.

Linda and James came to Mark Twain Cave to purchase Mark Twain Cave following the passing of James' cousin and cave owner, Robert Bogart. They carried on a family tradition that went back generations on his mother's side. Robert Coleberd owned Cameron Cave, and the two brothers maintained a lifelong affinity for the caves in the hollow.

“Both of those boys did,” she said. “They loved the caves.”

Sharing a diverse legacy

Coleberd said her husband kept meticulous notes and organized his firefighting memorabilia collection carefully, which included dozens of scale models of fire trucks and their real-life counterparts. And she is continuing his practice of donating the historic fire trucks to area fire departments and civic organizations.

A photograph shows Coleberd in the driver's seat of the last full-size example from his collection — a 1939 Ford fire truck that came from Salisbury. She said that her husband donated another truck to the Hannibal Fire Department, which is undergoing restoration efforts in New London. She plans to ask country musician Brad Paisley if he would like the truck since several of his relatives are firefighters. If he declines, she hopes to donate it to the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Kingdom City. And Coleberd decided on a specific condition for the truck, going back to one of James Coleberd's long standing traditions.

“In Clinton on Sundays, when he wasn't working, he would take little kids on the fire truck to the Dairy Queen. There's conditions taking that fire truck. They do have to take kids to Dairy Queen at some point,” she said with a laugh.

Coleberd said her husband was extremely active throughout his life in many endeavors, expertly balancing work duties with family time. She said he played a key role in establishing the Firefighters Memorial at Kingdom City; he also taught trauma and emergency classes in Kirksville. He also served on the Board of Directors with the Mark Twain Home and Museum, the Board of Directors with the Hannibal Visitors and Convention Bureau, and was a Missouri Delegate with the National Volunteer Fire Council, member of the Board of Directors/Program Chairperson with the Fire Fighters Memorial Foundation of Missouri, Fire Fighters Association of Missouri, Rotary Club of Hannibal and Scottish Rite, a Deacon at First Presbyterian Church and a 32nd degree Mason.

“All the while, being a husband, a father, a cave owner — he must have been good at compartmentalizing — you focus on one thing, and then you stop, you focus on something else, then you stop — he would just about have to be, to be so involved in so many different things at such a high level,” she said. “He was a great guy.”