Growing up playing outside gave Ron Coleman a fondness of nature that continues to this day.
Coleman’s love of the outdoors led to a lifetime of work in conservation. At age 70, the St. Albans resident is still going and continuing to fight to preserve and protect nature.
Coleman was born in St. Louis and grew up in Jefferson County. His dad, Vincent, was an avid hunter and fisherman and passed those traits along to Coleman.
Coleman has spent his life working in parks and on conservation.
After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, Coleman used the G.I. Bill to attend college at Southwest Missouri State University — now known simply as Missouri State University.
In school in Springfield, Coleman decided to pursue a degree in a new program: parks and recreation administration.
“It was more about community then,” Coleman said. “Parks and recreation was a new thing. My father-in-law could never figure out what the heck I did.”
Coleman said he got in on the ground floor of the program. The things he was learning helped him land a part-time gig with the Springfield park board in the late 1960s. He helped with softball leagues, swimming programs and other ventures.
“I had a good experience there,” he said. “I worked there for about four years and did just about everything. It was a pretty well-rounded experience.”
After a few years, he moved on to the University of Missouri-Columbia to get his master’s degree in parks and recreation administration. Once again, he got involved with the city where he was studying.
He got a job with the city in the planning department while his wife, Rhonda, worked for the school district.
When he was finished with school, Coleman and his wife decided to move back to the St. Louis area. Using his new degree, he got in on the ground floor with another city.
Coleman was hired to be the first-ever parks and recreation director for the city of Ellisville.
“At the time, it was the westernmost city in St. Louis County,” he said. “It predated Wildwood, so we were building a program there with the thought in mind that Ellisville would grow and expand.”
Coleman said the city worked to acquire public land ahead of the development and establish a parks system. The crown jewel he said was Bluebird Park.
“We were able to assemble 200-300 acres there and do all the development,” he said. “I was kind of spearheading all that — the funding, the master planning for the facilities, putting programs in place. Many of the programs are still in place today, like the Fourth of July celebration.”
After 11 years as the head of the parks, he moved on to be the mayor’s assistant. Coleman said the experience of being in charge of a fledgling department was a lot of fun.
“It was extremely rewarding,” he said. “For the most part you could recognize you were making a difference for a lot of people by creating a lifetime program from youth all the way through seniors.”
Moving to the Ozarks
Once his time in Ellisville was finished, Coleman moved on and back to Springfield.
In the early 1990s he was named the first executive director of Ozark Greenways. The agency had the goal of creating a network of open space and trailing in the region.
Coleman spearheaded the acquisition of the second longest rails to trails conversion in the state. The result was the Frisco Highline Trail, a 40-mile-long hiking and biking trail from Springfield to Bolivar.
While in Springfield, Coleman also returned to his alma mater and taught classes on conservation, outdoor recreation and tourism as an adjunct professor.
The executive director job was challenging for a number of reasons, namely his family.
His wife, Rhonda Kohler Coleman, was an administrator in the Parkway School District and stayed back in St. Louis with the couple’s two sons. Coleman spent the weekend at home and the work week in Springfield.
“I got too tired looking at the cold-hard asphalt at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, leaving St. Louis to show up in the office in Springfield at 9 a.m.,” he said.
After three years, Coleman was ready to move on. In 1995 he once again was tasked with building a parks department from scratch. This time he was in charge of the city of Chesterfield.
Again, part of his goal was conserving grounds for parks.
“I helped create the basis for what is today’s Chesterfield park system,” he said. “... I had a wonderful bunch of people to work with there.”
After leaving Chesterfield, Coleman took a job as the executive director for the Open Space Council for the St. Louis area.
“It was a good fit because I was able to apply a lot of the knowledge and experience I was able to acquire at my prior gigs,” he said.
The Open Space Council was started in May 1965. The council is focusing on restoring and supporting a clean and healthy Meramec River, restoring land, creating parks and thwarting efforts to dam the river.
With the Open Space Council, Coleman worked closely with Operation Clean Stream. It wasn’t his first experience with the program.
While having day jobs in parks departments, Coleman spent a lot of free time serving on boards and commissions. He often served as the president.
Coleman is a former president of the Missouri Parks and Recreation Association and the Missouri Parks Association. He also is a former board member of the American Hiking Society.
“I got to be known as the president of everything,” he said.
He was working with the Open Space Council when the Clean Stream Program was started in 1967.
“Clean stream started with just a handful of volunteers,” he said. “We started cleaning up a gravel bar down in Castlewood. It was bad — I can’t even tell you how bad it was. You couldn’t go from one end of the stream to another without getting a boat full of hot water heaters, washers, dryers — all sorts of stuff.”
Ten years later, as a member of the board, he helped propel the program forward. From about 100 volunteers, the group grew to several thousand who clean up more than 500 miles of streams.
Coleman helped the program get better funding and support, which led to growth.
He said his passion for nature led him to work with conservation groups.
Coleman previously was recognized as a Missouri Water Conservationist of the Year for his leadership in the restoration of the Meramec River Basin; received a Missouri Parks and Recreation Fellow Award; was named the Conservationist of the Year by the St. Louis Audubon Society in 2004; and was named Missouri Conservationist of the Year in 2005 by the Conservation Federation of Missouri.
In 2016, he was named the Magi Foundation 2016 Citizen of the Year. The Magi Foundation is working to help the city of Pacific become a future tourist destination by conservation of the Meramec River.
Coleman got to know the Pacific-based organization while working with the Open Space Council.
Coleman and his wife Rhonda live in St. Albans. They have two sons, Dr. Barton J. Coleman of St. Albans and Travis D. Coleman, J.D., an attorney practicing law in Munich, Germany, and one granddaughter, Carter Wynn Coleman.