These six did Topeka proud

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Ronald Evans, an astronaut, was command module pilot for the Apollo 17 voyage that made the last manned flight to the moon in 1972. Evans was born in 1933 in northwest Kansas. He moved as a child with his family to Topeka, where he graduated from high school. Evans graduated from the University of Kansas, then served as a fighter pilot with the Navy, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. He was with NASA from 1966 to 1977, and set a record that still stands by spending 148 hours in lunar orbit during Apollo 17. Evans died in 1990.

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Oliver Brown, an African-American, was lead plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1954 banning racial segregation in schools. Brown, who was born in 1918, worked as a welder for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and was assistant pastor of St. Mark’s AME Church. Brown agreed to be the named plaintiff in a lawsuit he and 12 other Topeka parents filed while acting on behalf of the 20 children they were attempting to enroll in schools where attendance was not open to African-American children. Brown died in 1961.

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Charles Curtis became the first — and to date, only — vice president of the United States to have significant Native American ancestry. Curtis was born in 1860 at Topeka, then in Kansas Territory. His ancestors included members of the Kaw, Osage and Potawatomi tribes. Curtis served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1893 to 1907 and in the Senate from 1907 to 1929. He was Senate majority leader from 1925 to 1929. Curtis was vice president under President Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933. He died in 1936.

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Frank E. Petersen Jr. was the first African-American pilot and first African-American general in the U.S. Marine Corps. Born in 1932, Petersen graduated from high school and attended Washbun before joining the Navy, which he left in 1952 to become the first black pilot in the Marines. He flew more than 350 combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Petersen became the first black brigadier general in the Marines in 1979. He retired as a lieutenant general in 1986, and died in 2015.

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Georgia Neese Clark Gray, the first female treasurer of the United States, was born in 1898 at Richland southeast of Topeka. She attended high school in Topeka and graduated from Washburn University, then spent about a decade working as an actress before returning to Richland, where she became president of her father’s Richland State Bank when he died in 1937. Gray became active in the Kansas Democratic Party. She served as treasurer for President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, from 1949 to 1953. Gray died in 1995.

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Harry Colmery was primary author of the GI Bill. Colmery was born in 1890 in Pennsylvania, and moved to Topeka to practice law after serving in World War I. He wrote the first draft of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill, which Congress approved that year to make such things as college, mortgages and health care — once available only to the wealthy — available to veterans. After the war, nearly 8 million Americans benefited from the BI Bill. Colmery died in 1979.


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