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11 Pitt veterans who made a major impact

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  • Community Impact
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Alumni
  • Pitt-Johnstown
  • Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
  • School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences
  • School of Law
  • School of Medicine
  • University Honors College

From the author of the GI Bill of Rights to a former Army Surgeon General, veterans have shaped the trajectory of Pitt — and the world.

As the University honors those who have served this Veterans Day, the Office of Veterans Services and Archives and Special Collections helped Pittwire find veterans from the 20th and 21st centuries who have made a major difference in Pitt’s history. 

Harry W. Colmery

Military career: Colmery served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Service from 1917-1919. During World War II, he was executive director of Smaller War Plants Corporation and a special consultant to the American Development Commission.

Perhaps most importantly, Colmery served as the principal architect of the GI Bill of Rights and, in 1975, was the first past national commander to earn the American Legion’s Distinguished Service Medal. Colmery drafted the first version of the historic GI Bill on June 21, 1944, on stationery belonging to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. During 1975 ceremonies to place a commemorative plaque on the suite in which he stayed, he said, “No one person can accept credit for the legislation. It was a product of teamwork. Those who deserve the greatest praise, in my opinion, are the GIs who accepted the benefits and whose superb performance in college and since have made many of them leaders in the preservation of the American way of life.”

At Pitt: Colmery graduated from Pitt’s law school in 1916.

Wesley W. Posvar

Military career: Posvar served as a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force (USAF). He entered West Point in 1943 during the second year of U.S. involvement in World War II. Upon graduation, he was commissioned in the Army Air Corps as a second lieutenant and graduated with his pilot’s wings. He became the first USAF officer named as a Rhodes Scholar and retired in 1967 after 21 years of active-duty service.

At Pitt: If you’ve been to the Pittsburgh campus, you probably recognize this name from the brutalist Posvar Hall near the Hillman Library. From 1967-91, Posvar served as the fifteenth chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. He’s credited with enhancing the institution’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading academic research institutions. By his retirement, the University’s operating funds increased from $90 million in fiscal year 1968 to $630 million in fiscal year 1990, with the endowment also increasing from $81 million to $257 million. He also steered Pitt’s election to membership in the Association of American Universities, a designation for the country’s top research universities.

“He was one of the brightest people I met; an unbelievably amazing person,” said Donald M. Henderson, who was appointed Pitt’s first Black provost by Posvar. “There was a real effort, on his part to push for diversity. He was dedicated and really believed in and supported making positive change happen.”

Rhoten A. Smith

Military career: Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. As a second lieutenant, he piloted a B-17 bomber in 35 missions over France and Germany between July 1944 and January 1945, aiding in some of the most dangerous assignments to slow the German war effort. B-17 pilots and crews were essential in determining the outcome of the war; so much so that Hollywood films have been made about these “flying fortresses.” Smith’s crew originally named his plane The Fort Worth Jailhouse in honor of his Texas hometown. Smith was out of the service by June 1945 and sought to complete his education.

At Pitt: Following a successful academic and teaching career steeped in leadership and championing equal opportunity, Smith became president of Northern Illinois University. He left this position in 1971 to become senior vice president and provost at Pitt, a role he maintained until his retirement in 1983.

Obituaries described Smith as “a principled and approachable man who implemented the academic goals of then-Chancellor Posvar,” including efforts to recruit more minority students and faculty, and “a fair-minded progressive who protected free speech and listened to students’ grievances.”

Casimir J. “Cas” Myslinski

Military career: Myslinski, a standout athlete, attended West Point, where he was captain of the football team and named an All-American. In 1944, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and entered the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he piloted F-104s in Saudi Arabia and Europe. He returned to West Point in 1952 to serve as deputy head of its physical education department before teaching at the Air Force Academy until his retirement as a lieutenant colonel in 1967.

At Pitt: In 1968, he became Pitt’s athletic director under Posvar, whom he knew from West Point. When he arrived, only one team was in the midst of a winning season. Myslinski revived the athletic program and exerted an influence that saw Pitt athletic teams winning nearly 70 percent of all games by his retirement in 1982. He is credited with hiring football coach Johnny Majors, renovating Pitt’s on-campus football stadium instead of moving the team out of Oakland and drastically increasing community and booster support of the athletic program. Under his leadership, the athletic treasury went from $32 to hundreds of thousands.

Donald M. Henderson

Military career: Henderson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1952 and served in the Korean War. “The whole time I was there, we were in a combat zone. It didn’t approach anything heroic; it was just about trying to stay alive,” he said in a recent interview.

At Pitt: The war concluded in 1953, and Henderson, a corporal, was assigned to Camp Atterbury in Indiana but was discharged early in 1954 to attend college. He eventually landed at Pitt to pursue his doctorate, though he left in 1962 without finishing his dissertation to take a job at the University of Akron. He held various professional positions, including director of research for the United Planning Organization, until he received his PhD in sociology from Pitt in 1967. This marked the launch of his 23-year University career. During this time, Henderson served as associate provost, professor of sociology and eventually became the first Black provost of the University in 1989.

Scholarships and a chair were named in his honor, including the Dr. Donald M. Henderson Endowed Scholarship. Outside of the William Pitt Union is a clock dedicated to Henderson, who officially retired in 1994.

Jack E. Freeman

Military career:  Freeman joined the U.S. Air Force in 1954 and became a second lieutenant, serving in the Office of Special Investigations as a counter-intelligence officer. Stationed in Germany, he supported NATO and specialized in information-gathering networks and data analysis. He later taught international politics and American government as an assistant professor in the political science department of the USAF Academy in Colorado, eventually rising to the rank of major.

At Pitt: Freeman served in the Pentagon from 1964-67 as executive assistant to the undersecretary of the Air Force but resigned his commission when he came to Pitt in 1967. Freeman joined the University as Posvar’s executive assistant for fiscal management after befriending him at the USAF Academy. In 1971, he left the Pittsburgh campus to serve as the second president of Pitt-Johnstown. He established Johnstown’s first four-year degree programs and several academic divisions including education, engineering technology, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.

In 1974, he returned to Pittsburgh to serve as vice chancellor for planning and budget. In 1977, he earned his doctorate at Pitt in higher education administration and was named senior vice chancellor for administration two years later. Freeman served as executive vice president for the University from 1986 until he stepped down in 1990.

Donald Goldstein

Military career: Goldstein graduated from the Squadron Officer School, the USAF Air Command and Staff College, and the Air War College and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He began his teaching career at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1965.

At Pitt: Goldstein joined Pitt in 1974 in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). He held many roles, including associate dean of GSPIA (1986-88) and director of placement and alumni for the school (1977-84). He also had appointments in the Asian Studies, Eastern European Studies and the Honors College programs.

Goldstein was a bestselling author and Pearl Harbor historian who authored and co-authored more than 50 articles and 21 books. His most famous, “At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor,” was the 1982 first runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times bestseller for 47 weeks. He received several notable distinctions, including two Peabody awards and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award at Pitt. Throughout his decorated career, he was a consultant for NBC, ABC, A&E, the History Channel, Disney Channel and contributed to Good Morning America, the Today Show and Larry King Live. Goldstein retired from Pitt in 2009.

Book opened up to page about the writing of the G.I. Bill

Ronald K. Poropatich

Military career: Poropatich served 30 years on active duty in the U.S. Army with extended assignments at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center from 1985-2012. His last assignment was at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, serving as deputy director of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center from 2006-12. He managed sizeable medical research programs and developed novel research and technologies in medical informatics and telemedicine. He retired in 2012 at the rank of colonel.

At Pitt: Poropatich is the current director for Pitt’s Center for Military Medicine Research and a professor of Medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine. He is also a professor of Sports Medicine and Nutrition in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition Science and an affiliated faculty member of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Pitt. His research interests include the role of AI in health care, telemedicine, medical informatics and pre-hospital care in remote environments. He is the UPMC senior advisor for telemedicine and currently has more than $10 million awarded in grant funding to various projects.

Rory Cooper

Military career: Cooper enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1976. In 1980, he was serving in Germany when a bicycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Since then, Cooper has used technology to positively influence the lives of veterans and others who are disabled. 

At Pitt: The renowned biomedical engineer joined Pitt in 1994. He currently serves as the FISA/PVA Distinguished Professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology and professor of bioengineering, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and orthopaedic surgery.

Cooper founded the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, a VA Rehabilitation R&D Center of Excellence partnership with Pitt, and has been the driving force behind innovative wheelchair designs and other assistive technology and equipment. HERL’s Experiential Learning for Veterans in Assistive Technology and Engineering (ELeVATE) program is working to increase the enrollment, retention, graduation and career success of wounded, injured and ill veterans in engineering and technology.

Cooper has authored or co-authored more than 300 peer-reviewed journal publications and has 20 patents awarded or pending. He is the author of two books, “Rehabilitation Engineering Applied to Mobility and Manipulation” and “Wheelchair Selection and Configuration,” and is co-editor of "An Introduction to Rehabilitation Engineering," "Warrior Transition Leader: Medical Rehabilitation Handbook" and the award-winning book, "Care of the Combat Amputee.”

Among many other feats, he also survived a near-fatal handcycle crash in 2019.

Patricia D. Horoho

Military career: Horoho joined the service in 1983 as a nurse and in 2012 became the 43rd Surgeon General of the U.S. Army and commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command. She was the first woman and first nurse to serve a full term in the position.

This achievement, however, was not her first major accomplishment. On 9/11, she became first in command of medical care outside the Pentagon. Horoho treated patients, moved victims and established evacuation routes and a command center for emergency medical services. She also coordinated rescue and medical efforts with the FBI, fire and police departments, medical facilities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2007, she was appointed chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and, in 2008, commander of the Madigan Army Medical Center, receiving a rare two-rank promotion from colonel to major general.

She is also the first woman and first nurse to serve as commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, which provides health care to about 150,000 service members, relatives and retirees in and around Washington, D.C. She retired from the Army in 2016.

At Pitt: In 1992, Horoho received her master’s degree from Pitt as a clinical trauma nurse specialist. She is currently a member of Pitt’s Board of Trustees.

Anette Nance

Military career: Nance is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and is currently pursuing a doctorate in community engagement at Point Park University.

At Pitt: Nance received her master’s degree from Pitt’s School of Social Work in 2020, with an emphasis on community organizing and social action. She is currently the University’s director of partnerships for family support in the School of Education. While a student, Nance was active on campus and served as the president of Pitt’s Student Veterans Association. She was also one of 10 national finalists for Student Veteran of the Year in 2019, named to the Governor’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs in 2021, and ran for a local borough council seat that same year. Nance actively serves as an advocate for veterans locally and regionally.

And many more

There are so many more Pitt veterans making a difference in the city and beyond. See even more stories and statistics (PDF) about Pitt people who serve.

 

— Kara Henderson