Retired doctor follows boyhood dream
Dr. James Coleberd, 70, earns fire science degree
By: Angie Anaya Borgedalen
Like many little boys, James Coleberd wanted to be a fireman when he grew up. Most of all he wanted to earn a degree in fire science.
At 70, he now has that degree to hang on his wall along with his university and medical school diplomas.
Coleberd, who lives in Hannibal, grew up in Liberty. As a kid, he was fascinated with the fire department and the excitement of fighting fires.
“I'd jump on my bike and chase after the fire trucks,” Coleberd said. “Afterwards we'd help roll up the fire hoses.”
With his pal, Harold McGuire, the two took credit for saving the then-Sigma Nu fraternity house on North Water Street. “In those days everybody pitched in to help,” Coleberd said.
McGuire said the two ran up to the fire and decided to crawl into the smoke-filled house while firemen were in the back of the house. The boys found the source of the fire in a coal bin in the basement.
“We told them that we found the fire, but I don't think they believed us,” McGuire said. “They handed Jim a red hose and he dragged it in and we opened up the nozzle and put out the fire. They didn't even say thank you. I think they were probably embarrassed.”
Officially, Coleberd started his professional firefighting career with the Liberty Fire Department in 1954. With Fire Chief Leo Jackson as his mentor, the station house became Coleberd's second home.
As a Liberty firefighter, Coleberd helped fight three major fires: the 1948 Banks-Wilcox Lumber Company; the 1955 Hughes McDonald Dry Goods fire on the north side of the Square and a second fire in 1954 at the lumber company.
Young and adventurous, Coleberd was also the first to climb the 75-foot Seagrave Aerial Ladder Truck during training on the Square and then in fighting a fire in Excelsior Springs. The next day they fought a fire at Miller's restaurant on the Square.
Never one to stay away from fires, Coleberd worked for the Lawrence Fire Department while he was a pre-med student at the University of Kansas.
Coleberd became the fire chief in Clinton in 1963 before going to medical school at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. At the time, Coleberd said there were only two colleges that offered the fire science degree and there was a two-year waiting list.
When Liberty celebrated its septaquintaquinquecentennial (175 years) in 2004, Coleberd returned after 50 years and again climbed a fire truck ladder in front of the former Eisen's building at the northwest corner of Main and Kansas streets.
After retiring after 35 years from his medical practice and as an emergency room physician, Coleberd achieved his life-long dream in May when he earned his Associate Degree this spring in fire science from John Wood Community College in Quincy, Ill.
“My wife told me I better not be thinking about going to law school or seminary school,” he said.
When he graduated, Coleberd sent announcements to his old firefighting buddies. Liberty Fire Chief Gary Birch sent him a graduation gift, a firefighter T-shirt.
“He's always kept his ties to us,” Birch said. “It's great that he finally achieved his dream.”
Meanwhile, Coleberd has been appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt to the newly created 10-member Missouri Medal and Valor Review Board. Once the group organizes, it will be looking for heroes to recognize. Coleberd also said he planned to do some writing.