The freshly rehabilitated floor of the Thomasville Community Center gymnasium simply gleamed, as if it could beam with pride in the old building’s new life. Even in rubber-soled shoes, our crew practically tip-toed, cringing at scuffing the surface with a makeshift podium, projector stand, portable screen and potted ferns to cover the jangle of cords that certainly would not be taped down on that floor.
After the group assembled, then-CFO President Dr. Gary Funk called the late Fred Lemons down from the bleachers. He handed a basketball to the 83-year-old mayor, banker and benefactor of tidy Lockwood, 174 miles west, who had played against Thomasville back when this was the school. Lemons’ wrist flicked, the ball thunked and the first-ever convening of the Rural Schools Partnership germinated nearly two years after a group of current and former educators started focusing on how to thwart the demise of rural schools using philanthropy based in place.
That was 2010. The intervening decades between Lemons’ basketball throws were tough on Thomasville. The 1930s WPA-built school closed and kids now take a bus to the county seat of Alton, 13 miles east. The one-time Oregon County seat now has a café and a convenience store. The cluster of 75 to 100 residents wasn’t ready to give up on the little town, one of Missouri’s oldest settlements. But while the river has risen before, most notably Missouri’s historic 1993 floods, what happened this spring has no comparison in memory.
In the waning days of April, Thomasville was inundated with more than 12 inches of relentless rain that devastated this region where “the rivers run through” as Missouri tourism leaders promote. This network of federally designated national, wild and scenic rivers roared out of their banks over towns like Thomasville, Van Buren, Eminence and Doniphan. The Eleven Point River, usually a healthy stream on the Thomasville arm, rose in no time, a wall of water cascading down from Cabool and Willow Springs. It swamped all but three of the town’s homes and businesses, leaving its muddy marks eight to nine feet high on interior walls. It spared the community any loss of life or significant injuries.
What will this mean for Thomasville and the Community Center, tenaciously renovated by the late Roger D. “Dusty” Shaw, with some assistance from a USDA Rural Development grant. Shaw was a rancher whose family left Chicago in 1931 to migrate west, getting only as far as Thomasville before they found what they were seeking. The Shaws own some 15,000 acres, provide the area with a large-animal veterinarian, serve on local boards and support charitable causes, including the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.
Dusty’s widow, Nancy (pictured below at right with Brenda Ledgerwood of nearby Alton), was right there in the muck in the days after the flood. Volunteers worked to save what they could from the long trophy case holding an archive of school and town treasures. The Oregon County branch library anchoring one end of the building is a total loss. When the water in the gym finally receded, the high-gloss floor was covered thick with mud. The community pitched in at the school and at each other’s homes, piling up mounds of debris, ruined appliances and cars, as they wait to learn what help the state or FEMA will deploy.
Things are just so bad, Nancy Shaw says. Most remaining residents have had to move, some hope temporarily; others once and for all. Their houses sit empty, doors and windows gone. The town’s fire truck was lost. Weeks later, the farm fields are still so muddy, even large equipment got stuck trying to move storage sheds, toilets, even gas tanks that washed up in them. Now grass is growing up around debris to create hidden obstacles. Amish and Mennonite disaster relief groups have done what they can, but there’s so much work in the region. As for the Community Center, all of the drywall will have to be torn out. So will the wood floor, now ruined, seven years in May since its proudly renovated debut.
“Most of us want to bring it back,” Nancy says. “That is a real goal if we can do it. Dusty started this thing up there. The children and I think about that every day.”
No data, no studies, no reports exist to verify the impact of Thomasville’s charms on the Rural Schools Partnership over the three years of “rendezvous” held there. Did meeting on sunny spring days on picnic tables by the river better inform the students’ discussions? Did the Rural Learning Center’s Mike Knutson get more out of the experience by bringing along a fishing rod for “recess?” Did then-U.S. Department of Education Deputy Assistant Secretary John White learn more about the challenges of rural online learning while walking in circles in a futile attempt to raise a cell-phone signal? Did the years of memorabilia lining the hallway give the Ozarks Teacher Corps scholarship students a gut check to commit to three years of teaching in a rural district?
We would submit so. To the extent a place can anchor learning and teaching, the perseverance of Thomasville, past, present and future, will live within those lucky enough to know this wide spot between the river and the road.
Louise Knauer is Senior Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Photos from 2017 by Aaron J. Scott.