ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: BC receives $1.66 million legacy gift from Leo ’49 and Gertraude Coleman

By Noell Barnidge
This is a love story. It’s the story of a couple’s love for each other and their love for a high school.

It’s the story of Mr. Leo Coleman, a 1949 Benedictine Military School graduate who served in the Merchant Marines during World War II. After the war, he met and fell in love with Gertraude Koss, a young Austrian opera singer. They married, lived in Savannah since the 1950s and, before his death at age 85 in 2013, he drafted a will instructing the executor of their estate to leave a gift to Benedictine Military School after Gertraude died. She passed away at age 95 in 2019.

The Colemans’ gift to Benedictine Military School was $1.66 million, the largest gift in the history of the school. The Colemans were unable to have children of their own, but their gift will transform the lives of BC boys for generations to come. Click here to see the final project of the Forward, Always Forward Capital Campaign.

“The future development of BC is going to be forever grateful to Leo and Gertraude for the gift that they gave us,” BC Headmaster Fr. Frank Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B., said. “It would not be possible without it. Their bequest to BC is going to be influencing several generations of Cadets. We are only so grateful to them.”

The Colemans were loyal donors to BC and loved the school. Their family is one of 58 families who are members of the 1902 Heritage Society. They joined in 2016 after Mrs. Coleman checked the box on her annual fund envelope notifying BC’s Advancement Office that they had remembered BC in their will.

This significant investment marks the sixth $1M+ gift in the 119-year history of the school; all six of which have come during the Forward, Always Forward Capital Campaign. With an original goal of $12 million, the campaign has now surpassed $17.1 million.

After Mr. Coleman died March 27, 2013, Fr. Frank maintained a close friendship with Mrs. Coleman, checking on her many times over the years until she died April 9, 2019.

Mrs. Trisha Bacich, 70, executor of the Colemans’ will, was Gertraude’s caregiver after Leo passed away. But their relationship was much deeper, as they were more like sisters.

“When we first met it was like we had known each other all our lives,” Trisha Bacich said. “We could sit down and talk for hours. Gertraude went by Traude. The special people got to call her Troddle. My husband (John, 75) and Leo were in the Sheriff’s department together and we met through them. John and Leo were friends because they were on the boat together with the Marine Patrol. They were friends at least 26 years. Ever since I’ve known Leo, since he had no kids, whatever money he had was going to (Benedictine). They were not showoffs by any means. They didn’t flaunt anything. In fact, if you had met them, you wouldn’t have thought they had anything.”

Leo Coleman joined the Merchant Marines in 1946 but returned to Benedictine Military School and graduated in 1949. He wore his Merchant Marine uniform for his photo in the BC Class of ‘49 composite, which is displayed in Alumni Hall.

After his time with the Merchant Marines and at BC, Leo Coleman joined the U.S. Army, eventually retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. After World War II, he met Gertraude in Oklahoma, of all places.

“Leo was stationed there,” Trisha Bacich said. “Troddle was staying with a girlfriend and was going back (to Austria) and a girlfriend was giving her a going home party and Leo happened to be invited and that’s how they met.”

Having quickly grown smitten with Gertraude, Leo did not want her to leave and attempted a move that would make many a BC man proud.

“Leo asked her could he postpone her trip for a couple of months because he would like to get to know her. She did!” Trisha Bacich said, laughing. “And let me tell you, those two were so devoted to each other. They loved each other so very much. They had such fun together. I don’t guess it matters now but Leo would dress her up in an Army uniform and they would buzz the beach in the Army helicopter. And then they would go to an island and eat lunch.”

It was against regulation. “Sure it was! Sure it was!” Trisha said, roaring with laughter. “I guarantee you he would never have gotten out of there as a Lieutenant Colonel if they knew. But you know, that was just the kind of fun-loving people they were. And let me tell you, I don’t care how old they were, you would have never known it because they stayed young. Troddle knew how to operate a computer. She got on that computer, she learned everything about that computer, I tell you. Sometimes she would mess it up, and my son would go over and help her, get her out of a little jam. He had to take it home sometimes to reboot it but that’s OK.”

After retiring from the Army, before working for the Sheriff’s Office in Savannah, Leo Coleman flew company helicopters to and from oil fields in Louisiana, even surviving a crash.

“He taught several people how to fly,” Trisha Bacich said. “He had his own little plane. Him and Troddle used to go and have fun. He flew back and forth from Louisiana to the oil rigs. And that’s when he had a crash. Something went wrong with his helicopter and he had a crash. He was in the hospital in Louisiana, and he said the doctors there told him he would never walk. And Leo politely told ‘em, “the hell I won’t.” And he did. Yes, he did. It might’ve been with a limp but he walked.”

Said John Bacich, “We talked a lot because we spent a lot of hours together out on the river. He flew a Bell helicopter, like they one they’ve got in ‘M*A*S*H’ with the big bubble. He flew that for quite a while. Then he flew the Mohawk.”

Leo Coleman was born in New York to parents who emigrated from Ireland with his Aunt Mae.

“His mom and dad moved down (to the U.S.) for an opportunity to see what else was out there,” Trisha Bacich said. “Someone told them to move to Georgia and they did. They worked in sewing factories and things like that. His father worked in the hotel industry. And his Aunt Mae owned a hotel down there on (Hwy.) 17, Arbor Inn. They inherited that when Aunt Mae died because there was no other family. I’m sure he had family over in Ireland. His parents and Aunt Mae came over on a ship. His mother and Aunt Mae were sisters. They all came down here together from Ireland to New York to Savannah.”

During World War II, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Gertraude was forced to work in a tank factory in Germany. She also was forced to live in various camps on farms.

“You did what the German soldiers told you to do in order to survive,” Trisha Bacich said. “Troddle taught the American soldiers when they finally got over there. Her and her sister would go out and – because the soldiers did not know what was edible out there – show them what was good, what was bad, and they actually cooked for them and sat down and ate meals with them.”

Fr. Frank, who checked on Gertraude for several years after Leo died, said he admired her determination to make the most out of life.

“With regard to her employment during the war years, she was committed to a labor force,” Ziemkiewicz said. “She was incredible for her tenacity, her commitment to survive and, ultimately, to allow herself to live a productive life. Given the circumstance of the time, her life could have taken many directions. Had she not made the commitment to maintain her own morals, her life could have been entirely different. As it was, she survived the war. She managed to come to the States and, through that journey, met her husband (Leo). She and her family, during the post-war years, managed to regenerate their lives, live fruitful lives. She was one brave woman. She was bucking the tide and living dangerously. Her tenacity and strength, obviously, lie with her very excellent upbringing. And she carried that with her in spite of the political winds that blew.”

When World War II ended, Gertraude went to America to visit a friend and was introduced to Leo. In Savannah, Leo served as a communicant of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church.

“Every Saturday, Leo went to St. Frances Cabrini to the late Mass and to see Fr. Gabe,” Trisha Bacich said. “His love for BC was very deep. He might not have told a lot of people but when he talked about BC it was of the fond memories he had of going there. He was happy that his parents put him there. I don’t know if he was at the top of the class or not but he had to be pretty high up there because by the time he went to college, he put himself through the academy and became a policeman on his own. And there he made straight A’s. He went to an accounting class and there he made straight A’s. Leo was a very smart man. And he also loved guns. He was a true marksman. He had trophies and things like that.”

Gertraude sang opera at the old Weis Theater and retired from the library downtown. She loved nature and she was an artist.

“She could paint and she could draw by memory,” Trisha Bacich said. “We could go to the doctor’s office and someone would be dressed exceptionally. She would look at her and she would go home and draw her. She was very intelligent.”

Gertraude adjusted to life without Leo but it was difficult.

“She missed him,” Trisha Bacich said. “I took her to the gravesite often so she wouldn’t be so lonely. Like I told her, ‘It’s not like we can’t go and see where he’s at.’ He’s (buried) over there in (the) Greenwich (section of Bonaventure Cemetery). And she is, too.”

Gertraude often was visited at her home by BC’s Ziemkiewicz and St. Frances Cabrini’s Fr. Gabriel Cummings.

“Fr. Gabe and Fr. Frank would come over there and they would just sit and talk,” Trisha Bacich said. “No matter how tired those two Fathers were, before they left, they wanted to know if they could do anything for us. As busy a people as they are, how generous of them to ask could they do anything for us. My gosh. You don’t know what that meant to me for them to offer, and me know how busy they were. If we had told them we wanted something they would truly have went and got it.

“I called Fr. Gabe to come out. She had her last rites three times. That was important to her. When we left the hospital after finding out that she had brain cancer, that she died of, I wanted to make sure that she had (last rites). I asked a priest at St. Joseph’s to do it. Fr. Joe (Smith). He gave her her last rites for me. And then Fr. Gabe did it twice just to make sure.”

Gertraude’s dying wish was to make sure Benedictine Military School received the $1.66 million gift that Leo wanted her to give.

“She fulfilled his final wish,” Trisha said.