The city of Van Buren has recently developed a plan to expand parks and recreation and tonight (Sept. 16), the city was able to add a brand new park to its roster.
The new park, formally named Mr. Chad and Betty Ann Colley Wilderness Park, is located on 55 acres in northwest Van Buren, adjacent to the Forest Oaks and Park Ridge subdivisions off exit three, north of Interstate 40.
The park land, with an approximate value of $1.35 million, was donated by Rausch-Coleman Homes to the city and honors local war veteran Chad Colley, who lost his legs and his left arm in combat during the Vietnam War.
Speaking before the vote on whether to accept the donation at tonight's meeting, Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman told of what happened to Colley and how he went from just a man fulfilling his duty to country to an appointee of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and an advocate for the disabled and veterans of all kinds, from both peace and war time.
He also read the telegram Betty Ann Colley received informing her of the grave situation facing her husband.
"The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your husband, Lt. Ralph C. Colley, Jr., was placed in a very seriously ill list in Vietnam. On July 21, 1968, as result of traumatic amputation of the left leg at the hip, right leg above the knee and left arm below the elbow, he was hit by fragments from a hostile booby trap while on combat operation. In the judgment of the attending physician, his condition is of such severity that there is cause for concern."
Freeman also spoke about how, though severely disabled, Colley had come home determined to let his life be an example, influencing Freeman's own life after Colley got home from Vietnam, settling in Barling with his wife Betty Ann.
"I was very fortunate in the early 1970s, and I can't remember if it was 1972 or 1973, but I was either a junior or senior in high school and I had the privilege of meeting you over at First Baptist Church. You had come over to speak to a youth group," Freeman told Colley and the assembled crowd. "And as a junior or senior in high school, I remember going over and listening to you talk. If you remember the early 1970s and on the heels of Vietnam, there were not too many people jumping up and willing to go into the armed services, and especially go into the Army. But I made that decision to help me go through college, to go into the Army as a lieutenant and I have to say a little piece of that had to do with listening to some words that Mr. Colley shared."
Freeman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the father of a West Point graduate and Afghanistan war veteran, said abiding by the request of Rausch-Coleman and naming the park after Colley was never a question, but instead an honor.
"Thank you because you don't know the difference that you can make in so many lives and you have no idea of the ones that you touched."
Speaking after the unanimous vote to accept the donation and name the park after Colley and his wife, Colley spoke about the years since the injury.
He said when he came home and resumed his life after Vietnam, he had no idea what kind of an inspiration he would be to people like Freeman.
"I didn't really consider that aspect of it at all," he said. "I knew that it was a challenge. I love a challenge. I just wanted to see what I could do and fortunately I was smart enough to realize that my contentment, success and happiness in life was not going to be predicated on how much I could do of the things that were possible when I had legs. So I just, everyday was a new day. It was a new discovery, something new to try. I had such tremendous support."
Buddy Coleman, speaking on behalf of Rausch-Coleman, said the park would be a great way to both give Van Buren residents a better quality of life while at the same time honoring a man who was not only a war hero, but also his nephew and one of his greatest inspirations.
"I just think it's important that people understand who he was. (Did) you know he was the guy who gave the seconding speech for Bob Dole when he ran for President? Chad was the second person to give a seconding speech for Bob Dole. And if you ever paid attention to when President Reagan went to the tomb of the unknown soldier on Memorial Day, there was always a guy in a wheelchair and that was Chad. He and Reagan were good buddies."
Coleman said even with the stature Colley has achieved in life, he would never have imagined all of the different ways his life continues to be commemorated, with many years still for a grateful nation to say thank you, as Freeman did tonight.
"He's very humble and he, I think he was proud of what happened, but he would never ask you to do something. So I think he was glad that it was happening and very appreciative of it."