Galen Cole, who spent decades helping veterans share their stories, dies at 94
Galen Cole, a former Bangor mayor and businessman who spent decades commemorating the experiences of Maine veterans after he narrowly survived a German artillery attack while serving in World War II, died Jan. 9 at the age of 94.
Friends and family recalled Cole, a Purple Heart recipient, as a man who dedicated his life to public service after his narrow brush with death in the spring of 1945.
His most lasting contribution to Bangor may be the Cole Land Transportation Museum, a facility he and his wife Sue — who died in 2017 — opened in 1990 on Perry Road, according to his obituary.
The museum — which is now operated by a charitable foundation, the Galen Cole Family Foundation — began as an effort to preserve the history of Maine’s transportation industry, including a variety of antique trains, trucks, tractors, carriages, bicycles and other equipment. It was an industry Cole knew well. After he returned from the war, he spent decades running and expanding Cole Express, the New England trucking business started by his family.
But after the Coles sold the freight operation in 1992, Galen Cole gradually expanded the museum’s mission to meet another need that was close to his heart: helping to share the stories of people who, like him, had risked their lives to serve their country.
The museum now includes monuments to Maine veterans who served in World War II and the Vietnam War, as well as those who have received Purple Hearts. It has helped provide more than 10,000 honorary maple walking sticks to veterans from numerous wars, including the more recent ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It also hosts a program that lets school children interview veterans about their experiences. Besides helping younger Mainers learn more about the world, the program also rewarded the veterans themselves, according to Robert “Bob” O’Leary, a Vietnam War veteran who has coordinated the museum’s education programs.
“A lot of veterans came and were telling their stories for the first time,” O’Leary said. “A lot of them were suffering PTSD for a very long time. Through telling their stories they began to have that relief, and Galen was responsible for that.”
In addition to running the museum, the Cole Family Foundation also provides scholarships and support for programs such as Literacy Volunteers of Bangor, the University of Maine Reading Recovery Program and the Bangor Region YMCA, according to its website.
Cole served on the Bangor City Council from 1955 to 1958, including one year as the group’s chairman — a position that also has the title “mayor.”
World War II was not the only time Cole had a brush with death. Twenty-seven years ago, he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and “two doctors in Boston gave him two years to live,” said one of his five children, Janet Cole Cross.
While Cole’s prostate cancer was never cured, he managed to survive it and remain an active Bangor citizen up until the last few months of his life. He died peacefully in hospice care after being diagnosed with pneumonia, according to Cross.
“He was a strong-willed and passionate person,” Cross said. “He overcame a lot of health issues in his life, and other issues, and he tackled them head on. He died with his boots on. He was a very strong man.”
Numerous state and local officials also remembered Cole fondly. In a statement, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said: “There is no one in Maine who was a greater advocate for our World War II veterans than Galen Cole.”
“Galen Cole lived the kind of life that defies description,” said U.S. Sen. Angus King in a statement. “Over the course of his 94 years, Galen was a public servant, a business leader, a philanthropist, a veteran, and much, much more. It’s impossible to summarize the totality of his contributions to Maine, but if there’s one thing I choose to remember about him, it’s this: Galen Cole helped people.
“Galen left behind so much for our state, from the Cole Land Transportation Museum to the Walking Sticks for Veterans Program – but above all, he left behind his example. For nearly a century, Maine benefited from his kindness and dedication – now, it’s up to us to follow in his footsteps, as his memory inspires us to treat each other with the same compassion that he showed to each and every person he met. As we honor his lifetime of service to our state, Mary and I are holding Galen’s family, friends, and loved ones in our thoughts.”
Gov. Janet Mills said, “After his valiant service in World War II, where he earned a Purple Heart for his bravery in defending his fellow soldiers and our country, Galen Cole dedicated his life to public service in Maine. Galen’s contributions to our state are immeasurable, not only as Bangor’s Mayor, but as a business owner, as founder of the Cole Land Transportation Museum, and, most importantly, as a life-long champion for Maine’s veterans, particularly through his walking stick recognition program. On behalf of the people of Maine, I express my deepest gratitude for Galen’s service to our state and nation and offer my condolences to his loved ones, fellow veterans, and the people of Bangor as they grieve and honor his memory.”
“He was of the old-school mindset that you contributed and gave back in the community in which you had a business,” said Cary Weston, a partner at the Bangor public relations firm Sutherland Weston and a recent member of the City Council. “It was like a rite of passage. It was not something you did if you felt like it or you had time.”
A public memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Anah Shriners hall in Bangor.