There were 14 kids in the Greenfield, Ohio, home where rev. Don Coleman grew up. They had two bikes between them. The ones who didn't get the bikes "sure hoped the ones who did didn't keep them out all day," Don recalls, chuckling.
When he smiles, he looks like the slender boy in a baseball uniform in the picture on the wall behind his desk. That's him, playing professional ball in the Negro League, a few gray hairs ago. In another picture, his team poses in a ballpark where white people got to sit under the shade of covered bleachers, while his team baked in the third- base sun.
"You rise above," that's what his Dad taught him about all the racial slights that would come his way. He did rise above. And has spent much of his life helping kids do the same.
There's always something to rise above, whether it's poverty or poor decisions. Better yet is making sure they don't fall in the first place. That's the goal of M.A.D. DADS, the role for which Don '95L is best known. He founded Lincoln's chapter in the early 90s and at one time had about 1,200 members in the non-profit group that works to create a better future for youth. An acronym for Men Against Destruction-Defending Against Drugs, the group encourages youth to stay off drugs, stay in school and offers moral guidance.
That first successful decade in Lincoln, Mad Dads offered tutoring, counseling and service programs like inexpensive sports physicals for children. For years, the group sponsored a fun night each Saturday evening at the Air Park Recreation Center. Businesses and churches donated meals and 100 kids who otherwise might not have something constructive to do, did. M.A.D. DADS cleaned up graffiti around Lincoln so visitors could see a clean city. They did parent patrols at 26 schools. They made a difference.
After closing temporarily, Don started M.A.D. DADS up again about a year ago and is keeping one of its largest programs in place: making sure kids have bikes. Bikes fill the old print shop in M.A.D. DADS’ new home near Sixth and J Streets in Lincoln.
He and several volunteers clean and rebuild old bikes, giving them new parts and a lifelong guarantee. He sends letters to schools, and children who raise a hand to say they don’t have a bike go on Don’s list. When they come pick out their bikes a few times a year, it’s priceless, Don says. This year M.A.D. DADS sent 175 bikes around the state to military families. Other large bike deliveries went to the Winnebago reservation, People’s City Mission, Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach, and other organizations. “The families ask ‘What do we have to do to get a bike?’ I tell them: Just say thanks.”
Children are at the center of all of Don’s volunteer roles. “They are the future. Kids without structure are destined to be in trouble.” he began volunteering back in high school,spending Saturdays at a local recreation center helping coach young athletes. He would go on to play baseball in the Old Negro League in Augusta, Ga., and Baltimore, Md., plus the U.S. Army Europe Fast Pitch Team.
His parents were his first role models. It seemed like his mother fed the whole neighborhood at times. His father, a general laborer who could fix anything, would sometimes work for free when families couldn’t pay. From a strong family came children who earned multiple master’s degrees, children who would become a nurse, a coach, a teacher, a scholar with a doctorate at age 24.
Don joined the Army, later retiring with 25 years of service, as a Sergeant First Class and a Vietnam veteran. He also became a disc jockey. His booming voice quickly moved him from sales to on-air. It also helped him become an ordained Protestant minister. A job through the military brought him to Nebraska, where he spent 10 years as radio and television coordinator for the Nebraska National Guard. His other jobs included chaplain to Lincoln’s Police and Fire departments and a campus supervisor at Lincoln High School.
In the school hallways, he knew when to talk, when to be tough, and how to give kids responsibility in whatever they were doing, wrong or right. “I’d say: ‘You did this. why? what are you going to do to correct it? What are you going to do next time?’” He asked the same questions in his own house, as he and Ann—his wife of 50 years and an ordained minister herself—raised five children.
They now have 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and an award naming them National Parents of the Year by the Parents Day Council in 2000. It’s one of too many honors to list. Don has three gold keys to the City of Lincoln and was a ‘community hero’ Olympic torchbearer for the 1996 games. He didn’t know if his old sports injuries would let him carry the torch the full distance. “But when it came time I floated the whole mile.”
His Doane degree hangs on the wall, not far from the torch. Before he got that, he felt like the least educated of his siblings. He had acquired a lot of training in the military, but didn’t know how to translate it to college until he heard about Doane’s Lincoln program and its credit for life experience. Once he met Janice Hadfield, dean of undergraduate studies for the Lincoln and Grand Island campuses, he was sold.
Everyone there had his best interest at heart, he recalls. They wanted him to finish when even he wasn’t sure he could. “I had to stop classes for a while. They hounded me like a bulldog over raw meat to come back,” he says.
He points to a framed Doane Magazine cover hanging on the wall, a picture snapped just after the commencement ceremony. His arm is draped around his grandson, who wears Don’s mortarboard. That grandson plans to enroll at Doane’s Lincoln campus as well.
Don graduated high school in May of 1955 and was handed his college degree in human relations in May of 1995— dates he points out to youth. “I tell them it’s never too late.”
In retirement, when he’s not fixing bikes, doing public speaking or his gospel show each Sunday on KFOR, he’s volunteering. Impact is what makes a one-time volunteer a lifetime volunteer, he says.
“Once you see how the outcome can be because you were there doing something…you don’t stop.”