The Forgotten Plains
Colorado's high prairie has long been ignored, passed over for the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Here, we pay homage to the flat expanse east of the Front Range, home to an independent, humble, rugged way of life.
The wind is whipping up out front of Plainview School, sending a dusty cloud tearing through the parking lot and across County Road 71. Not that Garry Coulter notices. Lately, there doesn't seem to be enough time in the day for the superintendent. There's a leaky roof that needs mending, grant proposals that need finalizing, and an upcoming graduation ceremony for the school's senior class. Then there's the matter of Mr. Coulter's impending retirement, something he doesn't want to discuss, at least not right now.
Less than a month of school remains for the 86 children at Plainview, a 47-year-old school between the towns of Sheridan Lake (pop. 66) and Towner (pop. 41). Congratulatory signs are stuck on lockers that line the building's high school wing—Kirby's been accepted to Northeastern Junior College; Jason's going to Colorado State University-Pueblo; Lauren will attend the University of Northern Colorado. The Knowledge Bowl team recently came in third at a meet in Pueblo, beating out other Plains schools; the trophy sits by the school's entrance for now.
Outside, farmers are tilling the land in tractors that look like metallic dinosaurs wandering the horizon. It's been a good year so far for the farms near town. Wheat prices doubled in the spring, past $8 a bushel, and a new family from Texas has just moved to town. Good news, all around. That is, until talk turns to Mr. Coulter, as it usually does. In Sheridan Lake and in Towner, folks want to know what's going on with their 68-year-old superintendent.
When Coulter got to Plainview four summers ago, the district was a mess of low enrollment and sagging pride. The last small farmers who settled here had sold out to bigger ones; jobs dried up, and folks moved away. Kiowa County—home to the two towns that feed into Plainview—lost nearly 20 percent of its population from 2000 to 2008, among the steepest declines in the nation. The lone gas station left town; so did an auto-parts store. There were worries that Sheridan Lake's post office would leave, too. By the time Mr. Coulter pulled up in his truck, Plainview School had fewer than 50 students. The district couldn't afford a preschool. The high school lost its baseball, football, and boys' basketball teams. The class of 1999 had 12 graduates. The class of 2005 had six.
It was a far-from-perfect place, yet it was a perfect fit for Coulter, a college-educated farm boy from Michigan who'd come to Colorado four decades earlier to teach rural high school kids about agriculture and welding and, ultimately, found his calling in administration. Coulter eventually became a rural superintendent in Pritchett, near the Colorado-New Mexico-Oklahoma border. He stayed 20 years, worked budgets, improved reading and writing scores, and retired in 2004 to a life of fly-fishing on the Arkansas River. That is, until he got a call from a buddy in Kiowa County who said the superintendent job near Sheridan Lake had just opened. "I felt like I was just sitting around," he says, "waiting to die."
The Hollywood happy-ending story would go something like this: Mr. Coulter came in, got people to believe in themselves, and turned the school around. But the Eastern Plains ain't Hollywood. "It took a year before people could trust me," Coulter says. "I'm not a talker, but what I say, I mean."
So when he came to Sheridan Lake, Mr. Coulter didn't say he'd be one of them. He proved it. His home was 175 miles away in Rye, but Coulter moved into a house next to the Plainview playground. He went to community meetings. He told folks from the state's Department of Education that if they wanted to see him then they'd best come after 8 a.m. because he might be driving an old Suburban to pick up kids for the first bell.
He stayed up nights in his office, flipping through budgets and test scores. Mr. Coulter found grant money and state money and federal money. Soon, a school that had had only small reserves had $754,000 in the bank. There were new school buses and new textbooks. Then he opened the preschool, with six kids and coloring books and play kitchens.
Families who hadn't given Plainview a second thought started sending their kids there. The school buses went right up to the Kansas border to pick up students. Enrollment grew: first to 60 students, then to 75, then to 86. Coulter went to work resurrecting the football team, because, he says, a country school needs a place for folks to whoop it up on Friday nights. The middle school students will huddle for the first time this fall; the high school will get its team soon. "Mr. Coulter saved us," says Tom Pape, the high school's history teacher.
Things around Sheridan Lake were going pretty well—until January of this year, that is. It was then that Coulter started feeling weak. He went to the doctor and was told he had bone cancer. Nearly a foot of his femur needed to be taken out and replaced with a rod. For the first time that Coulter could remember, he worried. He had surgery in Denver in the spring. The cancer, the doctors said, was gone. Mr. Coulter was back at work in 10 days, walking with a crutch and a limp, but ready to run a school district again. Then he saw all the work that needed to be done and wondered if he was still the right person for the job.
Mr. Coulter was tired. He talked to his family, then to some teachers at school. He said he wanted to keep going, but he wasn't sure his body would make it. Ultimately, he decided it was time to let go.
Garry Coulter is in the gymnasium, a single crutch at his right side, in the last weeks of a job he doesn't want to leave, at a school that doesn't want him to leave, with folks scared to see what's going to happen to their school when he does. Elementary school children swirl like a tornado over the wooden floors, their screams and laughter bouncing off the cinder-block walls. "Oh, if I had this kind of energy," Mr. Coulter says. "I could turn the world around." He leans against the wall. "You know," he says, "every one of these kids sent me get-well cards when I was in the hospital."
All this talking gets Mr. Coulter wondering about the school's future, wondering about his future. Soon, he'll pack his office and shake hands and tell folks that he'll be around if they need him, that he'll be just a phone call away.
His dark-brown and gray hair is slicked back, and his jaw sticks straight out. For a moment, he allows himself to see what he's done for this small school, for the towns of Sheridan Lake and Towner, for himself. "I'm gonna miss these kids," he says, quietly looking down at his feet. "I'm gonna miss them real bad." —RS