The day before Picher held its 89th and final graduation Shirley Sharbutt was already teary-eyed.
“I will be attending, but it’s very sad,” Sharbutt said choking back tears.
Sharbutt, 61, graduated from Picher in 1965. Her uncle, Herman Horn, who has since died, graduated in 1954; her daughter Paula Suman, 42, graduated in 1984 and her granddaughter Kinley Rickey, 22, graduated in 2004.
With her voice choking up, Sharbutt said the demise of the Picher-Cardin School District was probably inevitable due to the lead contamination and subsidence problems in this Ottawa County town.
“It is still hard; it’s very heartbreaking,” Sharbutt said.
Eleven Picher seniors celebrated their school’s final graduation on Friday. The 90-year-old school is being shut down due to declining enrollment figures caused primarily by a federal buyout of undermined homes and businesses in Picher, Cardin and Hockerville in Ottawa County.
The school district is located within the Tar Creek Superfund site, a 40-square-mile area polluted by decades of lead and zinc mining.
Sharbutt raised her family in Picher. Four generations of her family have attended and graduated from Picher High School.
Her daughter, Paula, was valedictorian and student council president. In fact all of her children were involved in student council in one way or another. Tears flow freely when Sharbutt’s family gets together and the conversation drifts toward the closing of the Picher school district.
For Christmas last year Sharbutt gave “Gorilla Bricks” as gifts.
Gorilla bricks represent the school’s mascot. The brick has a drawing of a gorilla and the year the recipient graduated from Picher High School, she said.
“We were all crying when they saw their gifts,” Sharbutt said.
After teaching English for 17 years at Picher High School, Sharbutt said she plans to retire to her home in Miami.
Sharbutt and her daughter’s home were destroyed in last year’s tornado and were bought out as part of the federally funded Tar Creek buyout. “We were double whammied,” Sharbutt said. “Everything was destroyed.”
Picher-Cardin schools has produced some of the brightest students in every profession, including doctors, lawyers, entertainment, athletic and academia, she said.
Some of the more prominent graduates include Joe Don Rooney, with the country band Rascal Flatts; Ron Yankowski, National Football League player; and Dennis Wright, world champion weightlifter.
“This town is not the armpit of the world. I wish I could tell the world, ‘Stop looking at the negative (Tar Creek) and look at all the positive people who are from Picher,’ ” Sharbutt said.