Top feature stories of 2021: After 2020, kindness and persistence triumph

·10 min read

Dec. 24—This year has been nothing to sneeze at.

Emerging from the turbulence of 2020, people have begun to find their footing amid a global pandemic.

From the first female Eagle Scouts to a school bus driver going the extra mile for his students, these are the Kokomo Tribune's top feature stories for 2021.

Gracie got her groove back

While other people her age were getting into seasonal sports like volleyball or tennis, Gracie McClain, a 17-year-old Eastern High School senior, was practicing Irish dancing.

She was hooked after her first class. Her teacher, who worked with McClain since she was in the first grade, said McClain had natural talent and a work ethic that set her apart from other students.

By the time she reached high school, her family's barn would often reverberate with the sounds of Irish music and the nuanced footwork that McClain practiced for at least an hour nearly every day.

A decade of hard work finally paid off when she qualified for a national Irish dancing competition.

"When it happened, I was so emotional," McClain said. "I'd been doing it for 10 years. It's my main goal and I'd been working so hard, and it finally happened. It really just made me feel good about working hard and where it can get you."

Then, a week before she was supposed to compete in Arizona, she began to feel strange. She was dizzy. Her vision began to blur. She tried to tell her friend who sat beside her in the Culver's parking lot, but the words wouldn't come out.

Later, at the hospital, a neurologist informed her she had a minor stroke. The doctors didn't know what had caused it, although they suspected it to be a side effect of her prescription acne medication. She left the hospital a few days later in good physical condition, but mentally shaken. Her anxiety grew and she fixated on every headache, wondering if it could be the sign of another stroke.

She was supposed to board a plane for Arizona the next day, but doctors recommended that she take a precautionary break from dancing. She had to miss the competition she had worked so diligently toward.

It took her nearly a month to get back into the swing of things. But, she was back to competing in November and is determined to compete in next year's national Irish dancing competition.

Although she still thinks about the toll this summer took, she refuses to let anxiety control her.

"After the stroke, it made me realize that any day could be your last day," McClain said. "What if tomorrow is my last day and I don't know it? What if something happens to me? I'm going to regret worrying about or not doing something because of my anxiety. I can't let it bother me. I'm not going to let it affect how I'm living my life."

Going the extra mile

After 50 years in retail management, Michael Bank decided to become a bus driver.

Now, he drives for Maconaquah students. His passengers include students with special needs, such as those who could be overstimulated on other buses, wheelchair-bound students and half-day or homebound students.

When one of the students on his route didn't want to go to school because they were wheelchair-bound, Bank installed a ramp on his bus so the student could board the bus on their own. He also coordinated trips to bring students and their parents to see Christmas lights at We Care Park during his free time.

This year, Bank was awarded the Sure-Lok Above and Beyond Award, which rewards Indiana bus drivers who exhibit "extraordinary dedication in transporting people with special needs."

Angel Strik, Maconaquah's transportation director, nominated him for the award.

"I would think empathy is one of his strongest suits," Strik said.

Bank is a dedicated chauffeur. He hasn't missed his route during the nine years he's driven for Maconaquah, he's the top pick when the school corporation suddenly needs a driver to fill in for the athletic team, and he takes time to acquaint himself with each of the students he drives.

"I know how important that is (consistency)," he said. "That's why I've had perfect attendance since I've been here."

"They're like my kids," Bank said. "I wish I had known about something like this many, many years ago."

Two years to make history

Three Greentown girls made history this year.

Among the ranks of Boy Scouts of America Troop 628, Abby Thatcher, 17, Lilly Shallenberger, 16, and Jessica Shannon, 15, became the first female Eagle Scouts in the 15-county Sagamore Council.

"I just think it's wonderful," said Pat Skillington, Shallenberger's grandmother and 628 troop leader. "I think it's like women getting the vote. It's just a good day for girls."

Their troop was the second female BSA troop in Howard County. It was founded in February 2019 after Shallenberger told her grandmother she wanted to enjoy the same BSA experiences as her brother. Shannon and Thatcher were recruited shortly after the troop's founding

By the time the three learned about the possibility of joining the inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts, they had less than two years to prepare. According to Sagamore BSA Scout Executive Ben Blumenberg, it takes most people four years.

There's a daunting list of requirements, too. To become Eagle Scouts, the three girls would have to climb the ranks, earn 21 merit badges, serve six months in a position of responsibility, plan and execute an Eagle Scout project and pass a board of review.

Undeterred, the girls got to work. They tackled the merit badges first, then moved on to community service projects, like volunteer work with the Kokomo Humane Society.

Finally, it was time for their Eagle Scout projects. Thatcher helped Kokomo-Howard County Public Library with its butterfly garden. Shannon was the head architect for Eastern High School's soccer concession stand. Shallenberger renovated an old garden shed at Jerome Christian Church.

Their dedication paid off on Feb. 3 after each of them passed their board of review. They now stand among 52 other Eagle Scouts from Greentown who have earned the top BSA ranking since 1966.

"I am just bowled away by how these girls have pushed so hard for these two years to make their dream happen," Skillington said. "I have done everything in my power to make sure that they are able to achieve that."

"I never really thought I would be an Eagle Scout," Shannon said. "Until I found out about the inaugural class, I didn't really plan on hustling through anything. I never really thought I would accomplish something that big. I feel like there's not a lot of big things you can accomplish in Kokomo and Greentown, but it would be nice to be known in history."

Driving miles with Mr. Smiles

Pizza Hut deliveries in Tipton are served with a smile.

Unwaveringly in Robert Peters' 31-year career with the pizza chain, he has upheld the reputation of "Mr. Smiles" with a kind word and a friendly grin.

"A smile may do more for that person than you think," said Peters, 58. "I heard a while ago that if someone sees you smile, that may be the only smile they see all day, or you might be the only person they talk to that day."

In return, Peters' reputation served him in January after locals raised more than $16,000 to replace his 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. Before the fundraiser, Peters was borrowing his mother's car because his Oldsmobile, which had more than 205,000 miles on the odometer, was beginning to break down.

The fundraiser was led by Tipton native Tanner Langley, 28.

"This guy has been wholesome and awesome his whole life, but here he is having to borrow his mom's car," Langley said. "It just didn't seem right that he's been such a good person his whole life and he has to worry about his car working every day, when he relies so much on his vehicle."

Langley's GoFundMe campaign, which was called "Driving Miles with Mr. Smiles," met its goal of $12,000 in three days. Four days after the campaign began, an excess $4,000 had been contributed.

At first, Langley tried to keep the campaign a secret from Peters. But after the project was shared over 2,000 times on Facebook, he figured he ought to ask Peters what type of car he preferred.

Keeping it simple, Peters requested that his new set of wheels would be red and made by either GM or Chrysler.

On Jan. 11, Peters drove his Oldsmobile to the Pizza Hut parking lot and found a Cajun red 2017 Chevy Malibu waiting for him.

"You deserve a better car," Langley told Peters. "You don't just need it. You deserve it. Everybody loves you."

Money kept coming in after Peters received his car. The extra funds, Langley said, would be given to Peters for car maintenance.

"This is kind of beyond my comprehension," Peters said. "It's almost surreal. I can't believe people would do this. I was just doing my job and trying to make someone's day better by delivering a pizza, a smile and being friendly to them."

A puppeteer's right-hand man

Granpa Cratchet can always be found in the same red flannel shirt and blue denim overalls. His white beard remains untrimmed and, although he was born roughly 30 years ago, he has a special talent for transcending time.

His father is 70-year-old puppeteer Sam Bowman, who also has a special talent. Bowman makes people laugh.

When he was young, Bowman helped raise his brothers and sisters on his grandfather's farm. Later, he wound up teaching children at a church in Peoria, Illinois, as a volunteer. Then, he finally got his start as a puppeteer at a local mall. Before long, he was touring malls across America. That's when someone recommended a country-themed act.

"Bam," he said, "I grew up with my grandpa at a farm in Indiana, and I happened to find a grandpa puppet. I was off and going after that."

Drawing inspiration from his own grandfather and TV stars from the 1950s, he created Granpa Cratchet. Together, the duo have formed a noteworthy act, entertaining children and adults alike at the Howard County 4-H Fair for the past three decades.

The Sharpsville native explained that humor and an almost antiquated sense of family bonds make his performance successful.

"... I do know what resonates and stays the same over the years is the universal language of comedy. It's about slapstick, making mistakes, off-the-wall gaffs, fast-paced material," Bowman said.

"But the deeper truth of it is that I believe that God put a calling on my life," he said. "He equipped me to do this, gave me an anointing to do this, and I don't know why it works. It just does."

The puppeteer also explained that, these days, people need to feel connected to their families and have access to the wisdom of their elders.

"For some reason, to have that older generation love you, value you, accept you, honor you, it's this concept of 'He loves me,' that I think works so well with kids," Bowman said. "Kids can get down and hug the puppets or touch them one-on-one. It just strikes a chord with them."

Although he doesn't know when his last show will be, he hopes the Howard County 4-H Fair will be the last fair performance.

"You don't think about the end when you're at the beginning. But I do wonder what that's going to feel like that night," Bowman said. "Somedays, I'm like, 'I don't want to go do this,' but then I know at that time, it'll be like burying someone. It'll be like a death, a funeral. And I guess I'm just not ready for that yet."

He teared up reflecting on his career. All the people, places and experiences on the road culminated in "sorry to quote the movie, a wonderful life."

James Bennett III can be reached at 765-454-9580 or james.bennett@kokomotribune.com.

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