BY JUNE MCGEE
Cherokee Elementary will see some wonderful chapters of its history come to an end with the retirement of a highly respected principal and two of the school’s most beloved teachers. The high school also says goodbye to a 45 year veteran who has, over the years, worn many hats, all of which say “Champion.”
Ruth Richmond was born in Medicine Lodge, Kansas and grew up in Sharon. After graduating from high school there, she obtained her Associate’s Degree from Barton County Community College in Great Bend, where she also played college basketball.
She transferred to NWOSU in Alva, where she would meet her future husband Dwight. They married in 1988, shortly after she earned her degree in Elementary Education.
The young couple moved to Holdenville, in southeast Oklahoma, where Ruth taught in the New Lima schools for two years, first grade one year, and a combined class of first and second graders the next.
In 1990, Dwight’s job brought him to Cherokee and the Richmonds bought a house, which they moved into that June. There were no local teaching positions available at the time, but Ruth did a lot of substitute teaching, some of it long-term. When a teacher moved away in the middle of the school year, Ruth was hired to teach fourth grade at Cherokee Elementary. So began her teaching career in the spring of 1991.
She continued with the same grade until 2012, when she had completed her master’s degree in Educational Leadership at NWOSU. She then moved into administration, first as an instructional coach, and then as the elementary principal.
Whether teaching or administrating, Ruth’s first priority has always been the students. Noting that it has sometimes been challenging to deal with all of the regulations and extra requirements that seem to be continually added to a teacher’s job, she expressed the wish that “teachers could just be allowed to teach, and to help students become life-long learners without all of the testing and paperwork.”
Still, the job has been a joy to this dedicated educator, particularly, she says, “when your student grasps something they’ve struggled with and you see that light bulb come on.” She has always loved watching children exhibit excitement for learning, having that same thirst for knowledge herself.
Ruth would advise aspiring teachers to “have high expectations for all of your students and let them know you believe in them. Offer praise and a safe, exciting learning environment for them to become successful learners!”
Her generous heart and warm smile will be missed by students and co-workers alike, as well as her calming and competent presence in the sometimes chaotic world of grade school drama. This woman worked tirelessly to make her school the best it could be, and to ensure that no child would “fall through the cracks” on her watch. Not content to merely provide the best education possible, Ruth was always concerned with the well-being of the whole child, that each might be safe and healthy and cared for, and equipped with the tools to become a kind and productive citizen.
These days, she has plans to devote her well-earned retirement to enjoying her family, especially,of course, the grandchildren. Daughter Audrey lives in Cherokee with her husband Cameron and their two young sons, Cooper and Carter, and is following in her mother’s capable footsteps by teaching third grade at the elementary school. Carli is a game warden in Burr Oak, Kansas, where she and husband Dalton will welcome a baby girl in October, and Derek lives with his family, Samantha and Oliver, in Mooreland, where he is a farmer and rancher.
Wherever she goes from here, you can be sure that Ruth will always be eager to learn something new, to pass along that knowledge with her teacher’s heart and to explore whatever opportunities come her way.
Born in Anthony, Kansas, Cathy Graham was raised in Wakita. A girl with a plan, she graduated high school and set about obtaining her degree in Family Relations and Child development from OSU. She then went on to earn her master’s degree in Elementary Education from NWOSU and completed her student teaching in a sixth grade class back at the Wakita Grade School.
Cathy’s teaching career began in the small Kansas town of Argonia, where she taught second grade. Later, she had the unenviable experience of teaching second grade half days and sixth grade the remainder of each day in Morrison, Oklahoma, while her husband Terry worked on his own master’s degree at OSU.
After their son Kelly was born, Cathy was a stay-at-home mom for two years, although she did substitute at various schools in the Covington area, where they were living at that time.
In 1983, the couple decided to move back to the farm where Terry had grown up,bringing them closer to her family in Wakita, as well. There being no teacher openings available, Cathy went to work for AEC,where she spent four years as their cashier.
It was in the fall of 1987 that Cathy was hired at Cherokee Elementary, teaching sixth grade alongside Floyd Stout, with Jessie Mary Reinhart as their principal.
The following year she moved to first grade, which she taught with Cherie Lau for 12 years. “Then.” she says, “came some lean years with lower student enrollment and retirements.” She was moved from first to second grade for one year, and then to third the next, so that she actually ended up teaching some of the same students three years in a row! After that, she went back to second grade and remained there until her retirement this year, teaching for a total of 36 years.
Cathy has taught two generations of students during that time and says “I cherish the fact that I have had the opportunity to watch so many grow up and see what they are doing with their lives now.”
A lot has changed during that period, of course. “The biggest challenge,” she noted, “has been balancing the different learning needs of each child in regard to our changing world. The technology has been a wonderful tool for teaching our students. I began with chalk and a chalkboard and made all of my bulletin boards by hand. Used the mimeograph machine to copy papers. We were so thrilled when copy machines were made available! Now there are Smart Boards and an App for everything one might need.”
Still, some things never change, and Cathy has always loved to get the students excited about what they were learning. “When I was teaching them to read, and how the light just came on…”she remembered, “…to see the delight on their faces is something that will never be forgotten.”
Cathy looks forward these days to spending more time with husband Terry, son Kelly, who lives in Fredericksburg, Texas, and daughter Kara in Nashville. But most of all, she says, just to enjoy her life to the fullest.
And to think, sometimes, about all of the young lives she has touched. Some of them might even grow up to be teachers. And to those, she offers these words; “Love your students,laugh often. You are an important adult in their lives. Don’t be scared to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!”
Patty Means’ motto for teaching, and indeed, for life in general, would seem to be “Every single day is brand new.” She would encourage those just starting out in the profession to “Take one day at a time and ask for help. Remember that you’re learning too, every day. There will always be changes, but you can always tweak something here and there and make it work.”
Nobody knows that better than Patty, who has been looking forward all of her life, and striving to make things better along the way.
A true Oklahoma girl, Patty was born and raised in Blackwell. After graduating from high school there, she attended NOC at Tonkawa to earn her Associate’s Degree.
What was meant to be a summer job with Conoco turned into a full time position, much to the disappointment of Patty’s parents, who knew she had always dreamed of becoming a teacher. But new days and new times kept happening. She met and married the love of her life and she and Maxie moved to Weatherford and started a family.
When her husband’s job in the oil and gas industry brought them to Cherokee in 1981, Patty was hired by Cherokee Public Schools, where she served as the secretary at the elementary for 16 years. That job in itself probably proved her to be capable of almost anything, since it is a position that almost defies description, involving everything from office duties to social work, first aid and general jack-of-all-trades. Not to mention lending a hand (arm, leg, back…) to every ongoing project and event.
When her husband and children urged Patty to go back to school and get the teaching credentials she had long dreamed about, it was a big step to consider. Her friends and co-workers jumped in and encouraged her as well. “I’m so glad they did!” she says now about her decision.
After receiving that long awaited degree from NWOSU, Patty’s first six years of teaching were spent at Hillsdale Christian, where she taught Pre K and kindergarten. After that she returned to her “old stomping grounds” and taught first grade and kindergarten at Blackwell.
The last seven years she has been back in Cherokee, where she had third grade for one year and first grade ever since.
There have been a lot of changes since Patty first manned the secretary’s desk for the Little Chiefs. Technology, of course, but also lifestyle changes. “Most of the moms work now,” she says, “which didn’t used to be the case. And the kids are so busy.”
But kids are still kids, and those under her care have loved their “Mrs. Means” as much as she loved them. “I loved seeing their eyes sparkle when they figured something out, and their big smiles. And if they did something wrong, and you had to talk to them about it, afterwards all was forgiven, and they were ready for a hug.”
She will still be around with those hugs, because Patty has assured her former co-workers that she will be willing to “sub” if needed, and will also be available if they need help with projects or school happenings.
Meanwhile, she says, she is going to enjoy being able to pack up and do what she wants, which will include spending more time with her husband and their grandchildren, Hadley, age 3, who lives with her parents, Mandy and Michael in Dallas, and ten year old Brenner,who attends school in Cherokee, where his mom, Mallory teaches physical education. And, of course, their favorite uncle, Patty and Maxie’s son Matt, who resides in Enid.
“I believe,” Patty affirmed, “that life isn’t guaranteed. It can change in one minute. We all need to enjoy it while we can.”
“It was always my dream,” mused Cherokee’s most winning track coach ever, “to coach high school basketball.” Funny how life has a way of changing your mind.
Steve Hickman was born at Alva General Hospital in 1950, the son of hard-working Oklahoma folks. “We never had a lot,” he remembers, “but never wanted for much either.” Along with his two brothers, they lived on the farm six miles southwest of the small metropolis of Dacoma until Steve was 16 years old, then the family moved to town. A member of the last graduating class of Dacoma High School, he was one of four seniors in 1968.
Steve married the beautiful Cathy Leamon in 1972, and they were blessed with two sons, Jeffrey, in ‘73 and Jeremy in ‘77.
He went to work at the Feuquay Elevator for his dad, and for Leamon Farms while attending NWOSU. He also worked for the Starr Lumber Company in Alva one winter.
Steve received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1974, majoring in Physical Education and minoring in History. After learning of the expanding job market for male teachers at the grade school level, he returned to college, earning his degree in Elementary Education the next year.
In the summer of 1976, Steve was employed to teach fifth grade at Cherokee, along with coaching 5th and 6th grade sports, a hiring that he attributes to the influence of Bill Newlin. The young family couldn’t find a house in the area until Earl Gourley bought a house on a Saturday and rented it to the Hickmans on the following Monday. To this day, Steve remembers how cold that house was.
There were two classes for each grade at the elementary school when Steve began his teaching career. He taught 5B and Mrs. Reinhart taught 5A. She was, as he recalls, “a great mentor.”
Two years later, Steve was moved to full time PE for a year. Fourteen gym classes plus fifth and sixth grade sports made for a pretty full schedule.
Steve also later taught fourth grade geography. Then, in the middle of one football season, Superintendent Merlin Overton called him in. They’d had to let the high school football coach go, and needed a replacement. Being the good guy that he is, Steve agreed to finish out the year with the team, planning to return to the elementary school the following year.
Fast forward to late summer. No replacement coach has been found. The boss tells Mr. Hickman that if he doesn’t come to the rescue, the school will be forced to drop the football program. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Steve moved to the high school full time in 1993 where he was the head coach for football and track, along with teaching history and geography. One year he also taught humanities, which he actually only learned about when a student mentioned that he was taking the coach’s humanities class that fall. The coach replied that he didn’t teach humanities. Further investigation revealed that he was indeed slated to do so, but had not yet been informed of his new responsibility.
It didn’t take long for the coach to realize that despite his earlier dreams, his heart was on the track. (He did, however, coach basketball for one year in 2009) When he started, there were only four boys going out for track, and they were throwers. They went up to six boys, but still didn’t have enough for relays.
Each year their number increased. The team started going to state and placed third there. They tied for runner up in 1997. It was then that Coach Hickman decided to resign from football and just concentrate on his track team. He was told that quitting football would mean that he would have to give up track as well.
Fortunately for all concerned, the community rallied around their coach with a great show of support. The superintendent at that time agreed to allow Steve to coach track, but only on the condition that he be in the classroom the last hour of the day and that track take place after school.
Despite his fears that the numbers they had just built up would fall way off, that didn’t happen. Numbers stayed up, the team continued to be successful. “We climbed that hurdle,” said Coach with his signature grin. “No pun intended.”
Steve loved every minute of the time he spent with his students and athletes. He enjoyed teaching them what they hadn’t known before and watching them accomplish things they didn’t think they could do. “Hard work,” he would tell them, “is the most important thing.”
“They saw how rewarding it was to place at state, which made them work harder,” he said. “Then when we won a State Championship, it was extremely rewarding and it kept feeding down to the younger guys. I learned how to prepare them as years went on and when regionals and state came, we were mentally tough. Every year I told them ‘They give two trophies at state and I intend to get one of them.’” He often did.
Steve would go on to lead his Chiefs to victory in five state championships. Four times they were state runner-ups. He was named State Coach of the Year in 2014 and National Federation State Coach the following year.
The annual Cherokee Invitational now bears the name of this beloved coach, and his team has taken home the gold from that tournament two years in a row.
In spite of his winning record, Coach Hickman remains humble, crediting his glory to the kids who worked so hard and to his wife of 49 years and their own sons, who not only supported him, but worked hard themselves to keep team members safe, fed, loved, and cared for. “It has always been a challenge to meet all of the various needs of the students, whether that be at school or home,” he affirmed. “I couldn’t have done what I did without my family.”
“I’m not one to give advice, but I’ve told other people that I don’t treat all of the kids equally. I treat them fairly. All kids are different, with different interests, backgrounds, and problems. You have to find the right button to push. Each one has to be treated as an individual to get the most out of them, and that will help the whole team.
“Track is a team sport. If you don’t approach it that way, you won’t win championships, even though you have many individual events. Coaches should never be afraid to ask for help. After all, there are 17 different track events. We need to be able to admit when we make mistakes and not be afraid to apologize. Some coaches have such egos that they can’t do either of those.”
Steve now has plans to slow down on the farm, take life a little easier, chase fewer rambunctious cows. He and Cathy want to spend more time at the lake and enjoy watching their grandchildren grow. But to say he’s going to miss the job that became his life blood almost accidentally would be an understatement. In his heart and in the hearts of this community, he will always be “Coach.”