By William Smith
Due to his affable personality, everybody loves Joe Coleman.
He’s a consistent smiling face at Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center, where he works as an environmental aid. His fellow employees already know him as one of the kindest souls on this side of existence.
But not everybody knows Joe is a checkers champion.
Coleman, who has been part of the local Midwest Magic Special Olympics team for years, won first place in the minors division of the 2022 US Open National “Albert Tucker” Championship in Vidor, Texas last month. The best checker players in the world compete at the tournament.
One of the players described Joe as “tough as a boot.”
“I always play (checkers) online every day,” Coleman said.
In congratulating Coleman on his win, USA Checkers, sponsored and supported by the American Checker Federation, said, “Joe Coleman has the love of the game, and this was well deserved. Win, lose or draw, he’s still smiling.”
The annual trip to the USA National Checker Tournament is a family adventure. His sister Kimm Coleman has been taking Joe to the tournament for the past 11 years, but Joe himself is a 15-year veteran of the event.
“There were some tears this year. My best friend goes with us to the tournament, and when she saw the trophy he got for first, she started crying. Then, I started crying, and Joe started crying,” Kimm said.
Kimm is the one who taught him to play checkers.
“I would let him win a little bit so he could like it,” Kimm said. “All of a sudden, we were playing one night, and I was just like, ‘What happened?’”
Joe had won against his sister for the first time, pulling out a flurry of criss-cross jumps that wiped out Kimm’s pieces.
“I said, ‘How did you do that?’ He said, ‘I read the book,’” Kimm said, grinning.
The siblings have been close all of their lives. Kimm is always looking out for Joe.
But she does have her limits.
“She didn’t want to play me anymore,” Coleman said, his smile widening.
Joe grew up in Burlington and couldn’t walk until the age of 11. Kimm remembers him driving a big wheel as a child, which was terrifying for her. Joe could build up speed but needed work on turning.
“We lived on the bottom of a hill, and Joe didn’t have the cornering down yet. He would go right past the turn and ‘smack,’ ” Kimm said.
But Joe learned.
And he made up for his years of being unable to walk by developing an immediate interest in sports – particularly basketball and swimming. He even got to play with the Harlem Globetrotters once.
“He could swim before he could walk, and that was his first Special Olympics sport,” Kimm said.
Joe has been an integral part of the Midwest Magic Special Olympics team, taking on the Burlington Police Department in an annual charity basketball game. He developed a lifelong friendship with retired police officer Darren Grimshaw.
“They go out and do things, and I found out they were riding four-wheelers,” Kimm said as Joe laughed guiltily.
Joe has worked at the hospital since 2014 and is friends with just about everyone in the facility.
“They all love me,” Joe said.
Joe loves them back.