By Eddie Roach, VillagesOKC media
Commitment. Discipline. Effort. Pride. Toughness.
Those are the character traits which are inscribed on the base of a monument to 1st Lt. James Robert Kalsu that will be unveiled March 29, Vietnam era Veterans Day, at the Del City High School stadium, which bears his name. On the same day, a documentary will premiere about the football star who gave up a promising career to honor his commitment to the U.S. Army and lost his life in service to his country in Vietnam.
“Uncommon Character – the Legacy of James Robert Kalsu” is a film about Kalsu, a stand-out student and Del City High School football star, an All-American at the University of Oklahoma, and Rookie of the Year for the Buffalo Bills, who became the only active professional athlete killed in action in the Vietnam War.
Documentary producer Gary Banz, director of Veterans Initiatives at VillagesOKC, says, “This story is important for many reasons. Foremost is that each new generation needs to know their own history and appreciate the sacrifices which have been made so they can live free and enjoy the benefits of that freedom.” He hopes it will inspire future generations of Del City students and motivate them on the field, in the classroom, and in life.
“The statue is a constant visual reminder of James Robert Kalsu’s personal story,” Banz said. “The documentary expands the audience of the Kalsu story. After more than 50 years, the public at large has become more open to reversing the manner Vietnam Veterans are recognized for their service.”
Kalsu’s story of humility, character, and valor has been told several ways over the 50+ years since a mortar round took his life in July 1970. Now, a documentary by local filmmakers explores the Robert
Kalsu story and how his life impacted so many – in sports and in service. Former teammates and battle buddies were interviewed for this project. All spoke of Kalsu’s character.
Kalsu was born in Oklahoma City with deep Czechoslovakian immigrant roots. His boyhood home was located on Southeast 59th St. in the Mid-Del school district. During his developmental years, he attended Townsend Elementary, Kerr Junior High, and Del City High School and considered Del City his home. His character traits were shaped by a strong extended family, a Catholic faith tradition, and his teachers in the Mid-Del school district.
Nearby Tinker Air Force Base, established during World War II, was the place of employment for thousands including Kalsu’s father, Frank. It was the perfect setting to raise a young man of character destined to become an All-American Hero. As a constant companion with his father who coached little league baseball teams, young Kalsu embraced serving others.
He was recruited in 1963 by legendary coach Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma, but
Wilkinson retired before Kalsu could play for him. By the 1966-67 season, the All-American Kalsu led the Sooners to a 10-1 (7-0 in Big Eight Conference play) season and a win over Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Team Captain Kalsu earned the respect of his teammates. Former teammates said his no-nonsense, team-first approach was loved by all and made an impression on players and coaches.
Teammate Steve Owens, future Heisman Trophy winner, said Kalsu was a natural born leader. “When he talked, we listened.” Team quarterback Bob Warmack said he was a little kid in a big man’s body that led by example. Coach Barry Switzer, offensive coordinator, remembers him as quiet and on time, and a mature leader well liked by teammates and coaches.
Kalsu was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1968. He started nine games that season and was voted as the rookie of the year by his teammates. While at OU, Kalsu was a member of the school’s Army ROTC program. After graduating, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant but was not called to active duty. However, not long after the Bills 1968 season ended, the call came. At the time, numerous pro athletes were eligible to be drafted but opted for the reserves, or because of their high profile careers managed to avoid the draft with deferments.
In November 1969, after additional artillery training at Fort Sill in Lawton, 2nd Lt. Kalsu found himself assigned to the 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles” and leading soldiers operating Firebase Ripcord high in the mountains of central Vietnam. At the time, Kalsu and his wife, Jan, had an infant daughter, and she was pregnant with their second child. In the early months of his tour of duty, Kalsu was promoted to first lieutenant. In May 1970, Kalsu joined his wife in Hawaii for a brief R&R retreat.
By late July, Firebase Ripcord was besieged by North Vietnamese Army soldiers who had surrounded the base. For days, the NVA frequently mortared the base, which kept Kalsu and his troops primarily in their bunkers. On July 21, 1970, Kalsu was killed by a mortar round that landed a few feet from him. Two days later, Jan Kalsu gave birth to their son, James Robert Kalsu Jr., in Oklahoma City.
When enlisted soldier Alfred Martin, who experienced combat at Firebase Ripcord with Kalsu, was asked to describe his commanding officer, he replied, “a gentleman in officer clothing.”
Dedication Day for the Kalsu monument is Friday, March 29, with a revealing ceremony at 1:00 p.m. at the stadium site. At 1:30 p.m. in the Del City Performing Arts Center (PAC) there will be a Vietnam-Era Veteran pinning ceremony and premier of the documentary. A reception will follow in the PAC lobby.
“Uncommon Character” is the second documentary written and produced by Banz which honors Veterans. It is the third the 78-year-old retired educator and former Oklahoma State Representative has produced with his grandson, Nathan Livingston, a 25 year-old cinematographer. The Robert Kalsu Legacy Group is the idea of Navy Capt. John Keilty (retired), a Junior Naval ROTC teacher at Del City High School and includes other community leaders. They are raising funds for the monument. Midwest Trophy Manufacturing of Del City and Willowbrook Construction are building and erecting this project.