WELEETKA — In the fall, they'll come with money in hand to the pie supper. Why? Because, they know the money will fill paper sacks with an apple, an orange and 2 pounds of candy to be handed out to children by Santa Claus at the school Christmas program. Through the year, if they know you, they'll stop to help with a flat, whether the road is paved or dirt. And year after year, "they take care of their own.” That's how Dusty Chancey, superintendent of Graham School, describes people in the Graham community east of Weleetka. His father, D.D. Chancey, served as superintendent from 1971 to 1995, and Dusty has held the job since. On June 8, two of the school's students — Taylor Dawn Paschal-Placker, 13, and Skyla Jade Whitaker, 11 — were shot to death on a rural county line road near Placker's home. No arrests have been made. The tragedy has received national attention. But again, Graham is taking care of its own. It's not just the $5,000 generated from a cookie and drink fundraiser held by the 4-H club at the school. It's the "if you need anything, let me know” sincerity from residents to family members and from neighbor to neighbor. That is the essence of a community. And again, the school district is the community. You won't find a store. They had one across the street from the school featuring one gas pump, pop, candy and chips. But its run ended in the 1970s. There's no post office. There are no signal lights. You won't find the name "Graham” on an Oklahoma map. The Graham School District covers 48 square miles, which includes about 600 residents. The K-12 school had 97 students last school year. Many years ago, it wasn't uncommon for a community to exist based solely on a school or church. But those are rare now. In communities, everything is personal. "My frustration is that I feel I should have been able to protect them, even though school was out,” the 50-year-old superintendent said. "They're our kids. We feel responsible.” On Wednesday, I asked Dusty Chancey about the community, what it was like to grow up around Graham and about changes. Although D.D. Chancey took a teaching position at Graham in 1965, he was actually born and raised about five miles from the school. Today, Dusty Chancey lives in a house built by his great-grandfather in 1912. So he knows the community, both as it is today and as it was during his childhood. "When we were 9 or 10, we'd go to the hay meadows after they'd been cut and go by the persimmon trees,” he said. "We'd have persimmon wars from horseback. If you have a 160-acre hay meadow, you can ride all over that thing.” Other days, he'd ride his bicycle with a banana seat and ram-shaped handle bars up and down the dirt road. Then sometimes he and friends would walk those roads — just as his two students were doing June 8. "But things are different now,” he said. "I have a 12-year-old daughter, and I wouldn't let her go out to walk. There are too many crazies. "And now the dirt road by my house probably has 10 times as much traffic as when I was a kid. Back then, we probably went for days in the summertime without seeing anybody.”
School defines GrahamGraham never had a water tower or a movie theater. But Graham School has included parents such as Ruth Artussee. In the gym hangs a plaque the school gave her and that her family returned upon her death. It includes eight small statues in caps and gowns representing the fact that Artussee had eight children graduate from Graham, and each had perfect attendance. Does the district struggle today? Sure. But it has found an economic boost as a virtual school. In other words, it is the host school that provides accreditation and enforcement of regulations, and a company called Advanced Academics provides an education online. So although Graham had 97 students on campus last year, it had an average daily membership of 212 students, with some living as far away as Guymon and South Coffeyville, Chancey said. I asked the superintendent what he thinks will happen if the school goes away someday. Dusty Chancey said six schools in the area, each of about Graham's size, were consolidated into other districts in the 1960s. He said some lost their identity. "If anything happens to Graham Schools, I don't think it would keep its identity,” he said. "It would just be a reference point such as, ‘Go to the old Graham School and go north.'” Now the tougher question: How has and how will this tragedy affect the community? Obviously there's much grief, concern and uncertainty right now. As for the effect on the future, Chancey said he thinks that depends on whether authorities find the individual or the individuals who committed the murders. "I think while that question is still open, there will be a lot of anxiety,” he said, "especially among the students and parents and the staff.”
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Graham Superintendent Dusty Chancey talked Wednesday about the importance of community. Behind him are uniforms retired after a student died in a wreck in 1997 and a plaque for Ruth Artussee, who had eight children graduate with perfect attendance. By David McDaniel, The Oklahoman