Ninety-four year old Jay Kolenc was honored earlier this week at the Hopedale American Legion as he was chosen to be the “Veteran of the Month” by the veteran/first responder jamboree committee.
Kolenc served in the Korean War and is an active member of countless organizations.
Dirk Harkins, head of the committee, looked up to Kolenc as an influential figure in his life and community.
“I’ve been waiting to honor this guy for a while. I always said when I was young that I wanted to be just like him. He’s spent a lifetime helping veterans and coal miners. He represents the four pillars of the American Legion. Since I’ve been home from the service, Jay has proudly held the flag at every veterans’ event through the rain, through the heat, he will get a chair if he has to, but he always sees his commitment through and honors the flag. We recognize him for his commitment to our country and recognize that we will never be able to say thank you enough,” said Harkins.
Jay was born on June 28, 1931, and raised in Hopedale. He attended Union Grove School and began his career as a coal miner. In 1951, the then 20-year-old said good-bye to his pregnant wife and young daughter to answer his country’s call. Kolenc vividly remembers traveling to Steubenville for his induction service into the military, and soon thereafter, flying to Camp Roberts, Calif., for a short training stint with the 7th armored division, 33rd armored engineers.
With a short delay en route to the next Military base, Kolenc was given a $14 stipend for furlough — which, even back then, would not carry him the 6,000 miles home and back. He reported for duty early to Camp Stoneman and anticipated a later voyage overseas. However, he was abruptly awoken one night to board a plane for Japan and beyond. With only eight weeks of training, Kolenc found that his military career had started as he and his company executed an amphibious landing on the shores of South Korea.
“If anybody says otherwise that they did not fear what was coming,” said Kolenc, “then they are not telling you what the Lord loves: The facts and the truth.”
Kolenc was sought out for his expertise with high explosives, which he previously honed in the coal mines.
“In war, supply routes and infrastructure feed the enemy. Some people build bridges and others tear them down …The rest is history. I left that stuff over there,” he said.
Kolenc spent nine months in Korea. He received many letters from home, all of which were censored and, many times, contained a fraction of the original message. He wasn’t able to send as many letters back, but he did send many of his thoughts and all the financial support he could. Upon returning home to his family to help his newborn struggling with a medical problem, he immediately went back to work in the coal mines.
“No idle time — I had none. The next day, I was back in the mine. And that was good for me. I was busy and I had to acclimate. That’s what I tell the young guys coming back home [from war] — don’t sit around. Keep yourself busy. Surround yourself with good people and work your hardest … and join your local legion!”
Kolenc spent the next five years in military service in the Reserves. He attended police officer training at Jefferson County in the late 1950s while retaining his mining job and also worked with local judges to mentor at-risk juveniles for over ten years. Additionally, he worked closely with Sheriff Abdalla and the Bureau of Crime Investigation (BCI).
“That was a really good time for me. Work was slow back in the 50s and 60s in the mine — maybe two days a week. That allowed me to go to school and work with the juvenile judges all at the same time,” he said.
Kolenc joined the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) 74 years ago, was director of the western region in the International Union of Mine Workers (IUMW), is a lifetime member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Korean War Veteran Association(KWVA), Forty and Eight, and the American Veterans (AMVETS).
He was instrumental in the construction of the Hopedale American Legion and a plethora of other community improvement projects, as well as serving on Hopedale’s water board and public affairs committee. He served as a commissioner to the friendship park district in Jefferson country, built their pavilion and a memorial wall, and spent two summers alongside the 463rd engineering battalion to clear a walking trail.
Kolenc’s father served in World War I, his older brother in World War II, and his younger brother in Vietnam—all of which are honored at the memorial wall.
“A positive attitude is key to everything you do,” Kolenc noted. “Don’t fill your life with idle hours. United we stand, divided we fall, and that means we need to be united as a nation, as a community. The White House is our house. The red, white, and blue is our flag, and we need to let the kids in our school know that too. I’m really grateful for people like Dirk who lead from the front, respect our country, and help our community through different things like this.”