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Rogue River resident says he has received personal satisfaction as search-and-rescue volunteer

Charles C.B. Coleman, 81, has helped look for lost children, recover bodies, and track a tiger in his 20 years as a Jackson County Sheriff's Department search-and-rescue volunteer.

In each of the hundreds of searches, he's found satisfaction in helping others.

All I know, I was in Kiwanis for five or six years and I didn't get the satisfaction from that community work ' scholarships and Easter egg hunts and things like that ' that I get from working in search and rescue, Coleman said.

Coleman said he probably would have worked in law enforcement like his father and his brother if he hadn't lost his left leg as a Marine in World War II.

In fighting in the South Pacific, he was shot in both legs. His left leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated. Outfitted with a prosthetic leg, he tended prisoners for the rest of his stint in the Marines.

After the war, he worked in the electronics business in California. He learned the trade by working for other companies, and eventually started his own business in Burbank. He headed the company for about 18 years, but in 1977, after two heart attacks, his doctor advised retirement.

He said sell the business and get out before the stress kills you, Coleman recounts.

Coleman and his wife, Ruby, moved to Rogue River near where Ruby's mother lived. We got a place and settled in to get ready to die, I guess, he said.

When a neighbor invited Coleman to go salmon fishing, he rediscovered a zest for life. An avid fisherman and hunter, he was soon fully integrated into his new community.

In 1983, when then-Sheriff C.W. Smith set out to organize search-and-rescue units throughout the county, Coleman heeded the call. People packed the council chambers at Rogue River's City Hall to learn more about the organization.

When they all learned there were no badges and no guns (for volunteers), it shrank down to about 12 of us, Coleman said.

He was selected an officer of the fledgling search-and-rescue unit because of his business acumen ' I could read and write and follow 'Robert's Rule's of Order,' he said with a wink.

He incorporated the Western Rogue Search and Rescue Unit as a nonprofit organization so it could start raising money. He also led a push for rigorous training so every volunteer would have a basic set of search-and-rescue skills.

While he is clearly proud of that organizational work, his real love is for searching the forests and waterways for those who have gone astray.

I like it out in the woods, he said.

He recalls searches both humorous and tragic.

Coleman and his wife still laugh about a search several years ago for a couple in their 60s whose car got stuck in the snow on a mountain jaunt. He expressed great concern for those poor, old people, who were 15 years younger than the avid searcher, Ruby said.

In October 1992 he helped track a pet Bengal tiger that escaped its pen in Wilderville and wandered the neighborhood for 10 days.

People knew their kids and chickens weren't safe, Coleman said.

The tiger eventually returned home of its own accord. I never saw the tiger, but it turned out to be kind of a fun thing, he said.

The most difficult and touching search over the years was the effort to recover the body of a 4-year-old girl who drowned in the Rogue River near Gold Hill one Easter weekend in the late '80s, Coleman said.

Her father and brother were fishing downstream from where she played and saw her Easter basket bob by on the current. They rushed to check on her, but she was gone, Coleman said.

Seachers recovered her body, clad in a frilly Easter dress, the next day.

Three or four guys quit (the search-and-rescue unit) after that, Coleman said. Death is a hard thing.

To make sure more searches for children lost in the woods have happy endings, Coleman for many years taught survival classes for kids. Called Hug-A-Tree, the classes teach youngsters to find a friendly tree and wait calmly in one place for searchers.

He also taught hunters' safety courses for 15 years and joined the Civil Air Patrol so he could help in searches for missing aviators and get search planes to help on searches he was managing for the sheriff's department.

In 1997, Coleman was diagnosed with prostate cancer and decided to call off his search-and-rescue activities. He submitted a letter of resignation to then-Sheriff Robert Kennedy.

The sheriff refused to accept his resignation and wrote back with a counter-offer that said Coleman could focus on a fund-raising barbecue, serve as a mentor to younger volunteers and skip the late-night calls for searchers.

They made me a lifetime member of the search-and-rescue unit, Coleman said. I was the first one.

The sheriff's department also honored him in December by naming the department's search-and-rescue building, at 620 Antelope Road, White City, after him.

At the start of his most recent round of chemotherapy last year, Coleman turned his fancy radio and other search gear over to more active volunteers.

I plan to be around, but I wanted to see that go to good use, he said.