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  • Jack Bowerman

Don Coldsmith: Doctor, Author, Horseman and Baker Grad

Don Coldsmith was a doctor, writer, educator and horseman. Those who knew him called him a renaissance man. He was also a graduate of Baker who contributed his time and talent to his alma mater in many ways during his life. Much has been written about this extraordinary man and what follows is what we have pieced together from many sources.

Donald Charles Coldsmith was born February 28, 1926 in Iola, Kansas to Charles Irwin and Sarah Ethel Willet Coldsmith. Don was the third child in the family that also included two other sons, Gordon and James, and a daughter, Dorothy. The family moved around a lot because his father was a Methodist minister.

Don’s father and mother graduated from Baker in 1912 and were married June 30, 1913. Father Charles attended Boston University School of Theology and received a master’s degree in 1915. Charles became a Methodist minister and his career began while he was an undergraduate student, serving as the minister of the Ives Chapel Methodist Church in Baldwin. After graduation from Boston University, he was minister of the Hutchison Circuit and later served churches in Larned, Iola, Parsons, Fort Scott, Coffeyville, Louisburg, Ottawa and Stilwell. He was district superintendent in the Parsons, Kansas City and Ottawa districts. He was awarded an honorary doctor’s degree from Baker.

Despite the frequent moves, Don was able to spend his high school years in one place - Coffeyville, Kansas. Don graduated from Field Kindley High School in 1943. His activities in high school included orchestra, marching band and Hi-Y Club. After graduation, Don enlisted in the Army on July 19, 1944 at Fort Leavenworth. His role as a combat medic in the Pacific Theater of World War II led him to Japan, where he was among the first occupying troops. He was assigned to provide medical care for Japanese war criminals, including Hideki Tojo, the prime minister.

After his military service, he decided to go to Baker where he joined the Zeta Chi fraternity. As a junior, he was Vice President of his fraternity, played in the band and sang in the male quartet. As a senior, he was the drum major for the band and a member of the Baker singers. He graduated from Baker in 1949 with a double major in Psychology and Philosophy. After graduating from Baker, he worked as a YMCA youth director in Topeka, where he developed one of the first interracial swimming programs in the state. After a few years, he decided to put his Army training to use and he enrolled at the University of Kansas Medical School in Kansas City, Kansas. He received his doctorate there in 1958.

It was during this time that he met and married Barbara Arlene Brown and they had three daughters, Carol, Glenna and Leslie. Barbara and Don divorced sometime after the birth of their third daughter. In 1960, Don married Edna Emma Howell who had a daughter, April, from a previous marriage. In 1962, Don and Edna had another daughter, Connie. The family moved to Emporia and Don established his family medicine practice there.

Don maintained his medical practice in Emporia for over 30 years and delivered over 3,000 babies. Fortunately, since babies don’t always arrive right away, he had time to spend on another one of his passions while waiting – writing. His writing career actually started with telling stories to his daughters. Frank Buchman who knew Don well, wrote in an article after Don’s death: “Their favorite stories were the ones he called “The Kids in the Covered Wagon,” based on his grandfather’s travels west. His family loved those stories and would beg for them every night. In fact, Don’s first book, still unpublished, was based on his grandfather’s stories, and is called “Land of the Southwind.””

Don is best known as a writer of historical novels about life among the Indians in the West. Don based much of his writing on a chance discovery of a horse bit in a store. In his own words: “I found the Spanish bit in a barrel of junk in northern Oklahoma. The sign said, “Your Choice, $1.00.” Most of the stuff was pretty worthless. Rusty cinch rings, old whiffletree fittings, about like what’s hanging on nails in our old barn. But there was the bit. A ring bit, of Spanish pattern, apparently very old. I bought it and took it home to ponder. It was nearly identical to one I had seen in a museum in Santa Fe, showing the equipment of Coronado’s expedition. How, then, did my bit find its way into a barrel of junk in Oklahoma? And who took care of it for all the intervening years? It was in good condition and had apparently been protected from the elements.”

“Several possibilities occurred to me. A few Spaniards were known to have been captured by the Indians along the gulf coast, and later adopted into the tribes. Suppose that this could have happened on the plains. He probably would have been an officer, because most enlisted men traveled on foot. Being a professional military man, he would have a great deal of respect for his equipment and give it the best of care. As he married into the tribe, his children would have extreme respect for the equipment. In a generation or two, the original use might have even been forgotten, but the reverence for the objects so honored by one’s ancestor would remain. Family tradition would always require continued respect and care.”

“In the final analysis, we have to say it’s all speculation. But, no matter how we daydream, our wildest fantasies would probably pale to insignificance beside the real story that could be told if the Spanish bit could talk.”

From 1980 to 2008, building upon his fascination with the horse bit he found, Don wrote and published 29 historical novels in what became known as the Spanish Bit Saga. From the Buchman article: “These books chronicle the unique moment in history when the horse was introduced to the Plains Indians by Spanish explorers, two of whom are separated from their party and are adopted by a fictional Plains tribe. The adventures and experiences of the explorers’ Spanish-Indian descendants make up the bulk of the Spanish Bit series. Because of his complete concern for accuracy and genuineness in his writings, Coldsmith was greatly respected among the native people. They claimed him as a member of a Native American organization where he is the only non-native member.” His writing helped redefine the Western novel by adopting the point of view of the Native Americans, rather than that of the European immigrants. He was honored to have many Native American readers and friends.

In 1988, he retired from his medical practice and devoted full-time to writing. In total, he wrote over 40 books, 150 articles and 1,600 newspaper columns. The weekly column he wrote was called “Horsin’ Around” and it originated in the Emporia newspaper when he was asked to write about horse activities in the area. Before long, the column caught the attention of newspapers in a wider area and soon it acquired a national audience. From Buchman: “His knowledge of and fondness for the Flint Hills where he lived, coupled with his worldly knowledge on any subject, made Coldsmith popular with everyone from the local feed store salesman to renowned authors and leaders around the world.” There are more than six million copies of Don’s novels in print worldwide, in English and in several other languages.

Don was invited to join the Western Writers of America in 1977 and attended every annual convention until the last couple years when his health prevented those trips. He served as WWA president in 1983-84 and Don was awarded the WWA's Golden Spur award for best original paperback for The Changing Wind of 1990. Other honors include Distinguished Kansan (awarded by the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas in 1993) and the Edgar Wolfe Award for lifetime contributions to literature (1995). Don was in high demand as a speaker, especially when the subject was the Plains Indians and the American West.

Don also spent time in education teaching classes at Baker and Emporia State. In 1986, Don established the Tallgrass Writers Workshop at Emporia State University to bring aspiring writers together with experienced writers, editors and agents. From the time he graduated from high school until he died, he also found time to own a mail order gun-smith business, be a taxidermist, be a vocalist in a men’s quartet, sell bait in a bait shop, spend one year as a clergyman, and to breed and show Appaloosa horses. He was a longtime member of the First United Methodist Church in Emporia, where he taught Sunday school and served in many capacities through the decades.

Don was well known as a horseman. He and his wife Edna owned a small ranch outside Emporia where they raised horses and cattle. Frank J. Buchman, a Flint Hills rancher and horseman, got to know Don very well when he was asked to help train Don’s horses and he wrote an article about Don’s accomplishments in the horse business. Here are some excerpts from that article: “While horses had always been close to his heart, Coldsmith selected the Appaloosa breed to raise, evidently because of their tie to early Plains Indians, as he’d always had a heartfelt interest in their lives and ancestry. . . The Coldsmith Appaloosas by that time (when Frank was asked to help train) had an enviable show ring reputation, collecting not only local honors but regional and national as well, both in conformation and performance divisions. Unlike some in the breed, especially in later years, his horses were distinctly marked with Appaloosa color and characteristics. . . Because of his outgoing personality and knowledge of horses, Coldsmith was frequently called upon to serve as a steward at horse shows, did much of the behind-the-scene work at shows and assisted in announcing on occasion. He worked as a ring man collecting bids at several horse auctions…. Always concluding his “Horsin’ Around” with the promise: “See you down the road,” Coldsmith’s final column . . . was in subscriber’s mailboxes on the day of his services. His works, directly and indirectly tied to horses, will forever inspire generations of readers.”

Don always stayed close to his and his parent’s alma mater, Baker University. In addition to teaching classes he served on the Board of Trustees from 1992 to 2000. His “Horsin’ Around” column ran in the Baldwin City Signal for years. Upon his death on June 25, 2009, family suggested memorials to Baker University, YMCA Camp Wood in Elmdale or the First United Methodist Church of Emporia.

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