PRAGUE — Until this week, the birth of Jim Thorpe a few miles south of town was Prague's biggest claim to fame.
Now, city leaders and residents are grappling with a new identity — home of the small-town school that spurned one of its finest recent scholars.
Resonating through media channels across the country is the story of the local valedictorian who lost her high school diploma for saying “hell” in a commencement address.
In Prague, however, the story is of a town divided.
“It's about time for someone to stand up,” said Sandy Collins, sitting in the city park with her sister, Lilly, after school Tuesday. “You've got the teacher's favorite, the football coach's favorite, the principal's favorite — it's just nothing but favoritism out here.”
The young and the working class in Prague are frustrated with the school administration's decision to deny a diploma to Kaitlin Nootbaar. But the preceding generation — the town fathers, if you will — are just disappointed her story is the one that's gained national traction.
Almost all hope the story goes away soon.
“Stuff like this happens and everybody talks about it, but it will blow over. It will all blow over,” said Bill Johnson, waiting for a tire replacement at Holick's, a tire shop and fuel station on the main drag.
“If anything, it will put Prague on the map, good, bad or indifferent.”
Prague, about 60 miles east of Oklahoma City, was founded by Czech immigrants when four Indian reservations were opened for settlement more than a century ago. Descendants of the early families still live here, and Prague celebrates its heritage with a Czech festival each spring.
With about 2,500 residents, Prague claims more churches than stoplights.
“Here everybody knows everybody, and if you need something you can get it,” said Jim Greff, city manager. “We want to be known for our quality of life, of neighbors helping neighbors.”
That down-home image was disrupted when news broke Monday that something was amiss at the school. Nootbaar, who graduated last spring, and her family let it be known they were sorely upset after the high school principal declined to hand over her diploma.
The school superintendent's only comment has been a written statement standing by his principal's decision. Nootbaar, with her family's support, declined to apologize and has taken her story worldwide. Tuesday, she went to New York City, where she did a taping for “The Today Show.”