Hometown Heroes

A Community Coming Together

By Amanda Blazzard

With the words, “Send the kids’ iPads and chargers home with them today. Just in case.” spoken calmly by my principle, I knew something was wrong — very wrong — we don’t just send iPads home with our Kindergarten students. Little did I know how current events were about to rock everyone’s world.

A WORLD CHANGED FOREVER

The week of March 9, 2020 was one for the records. We began with the time change messing with our sleep cycles, by mid-week the population was wolfishly hoarding toilet paper under a full moon, and of course the week ended with Friday the thirteenth, which oddly — or maybe not so oddly — would also mark the last day of school. I’m not generally one for superstition, but things were feeling mighty bizarre. What had been a faraway tale from other countries, now jumped to the forefront of our lives. COVID-19, Corona, some wild virus, whatever you choose to call it, had arrived in full force and began its lesson in exponential multiplication.

Word quickly spread. There would be no school for the children Monday. Administration, building coaches, and the district IT department spent hours over the weekend piecing together a plan. A plan for an ever evolving situation that changed by the minute. Sitting in an emergency staff training on Monday morning, we looked around the room wondering; Who is safe? Are we sitting too closely? How on earth are we going to carry on elementary classes on iPads? A vast number of our students don’t even have internet access at home! How are we going to make sure they are fed? Will there be someone home to care for our students? There were so many unknowns. Plans began to unfold in an orderly fashion. With technology that allowed us to stream live, we prepared for a full day of learning. Then we received the news that there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Wasatch County. We were ordered to wrap everything up in less than an hour and told to exit the building and just like that, our world had changed forever.

While my heart aches, I take a step back and look at the big picture. We’re still “Wasatch Strong!” We’re going to do this. We are doing this. We are leading out in the nation. Five years ago the school district launched a digital initiative, a quest if you will, in technology. Although the road was bumpy and sometimes contentious, we collectively arrived at a good place where more than 90% of Wasatch High School students were utilizing Canvas. Canvas is an online platform for learners and teachers to manage educational courses. Middle schools and elementary schools were not far behind. Not only did the district already have in place numerous licenses to digital resources, we had digital coaches assigned to every school in the district. Thanks to the vision and support of our courageous school board, the entire district, were one-to-one with technology this school year, meaning every student has their very own computer learning device. When Governor Herbert announced an allotted two days for schools to regroup and prepare to launch a new style of teaching throughout the state by Wednesday March 18th, Wasatch High School and many other teachers in the district were already ahead of the game and pumping out lessons Monday morning.

Our digital coaches function like blood in the body of our organization. These folks rushed together to capture the technological information and tools, as well as directives from our administration. From there they dove deeply into every nook and cranny of our district giving life to our instruction and functions. Vital is the best way to describe each and every one of our coaches. We never could be what we are without them.

BUILDING THE PLANE AS WE FLY

Time and again we’ve referred to our new model for education as “building the plane as we fly!” What an exhilarating approach! We can all attest to the courage that has taken. Pieces we deemed most important in that flight are: accounting for our students, making sure they are fed, both physically and emotionally, and assuring they are set to move forward in their learning of meaningful curriculum. In order to account for each student; teachers, aides, office staff, administrators, and every spare body, began compiling lists and calling students and families one by one. “Are you okay? Do you have food? Is there someone home to help you? And boy we sure love and miss you!”

Lunch counts were scabbed together the very first day of our school’s soft closure and passed on to our food service employees who whipped up lunches to distribute around the district. Bus drivers no longer hauled students, but became a school lunch version of Meals on Wheels taking lunches to Todd Hollow and Wallsburg. Aides, office staff, even principals jumped into cars to deliver sack lunches to kids they knew needed to be reached. PTA mom’s volunteered to pitch in with lunch staff to hand out meals as cars drove by in a lunchtime procession. At the time of writing this article there have been as many as 1500 lunches served consistently per day — many of them are hot lunches.

Everyone has made herculean efforts to reach our kids. District School Nurse, Aubreigh Parks shared, “We’ve all taken on new roles and job shifts so that we can function as a ‘family for kids who need a family’ and as members in this powerful team that make up Wasatch County School District.” We are not designed to be an online school; personal connection is what we do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize what are commonly referred to as ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences. Part of our job as a school district is to help prevent COVID-19 from becoming an “ACE” in the lives of our community’s children.

A MESSAGE OF HOPE

Delivering a resounding message of hope to all students became top priority. This support started at the top and trickled down to every individual in our organization. Principal Piper Riddle spoke of how Superintendent Sweat and his district level team kept a calm front and have done a stellar job of keeping principals informed ahead of public announcements, so that decision making had a small buffer. He asked us to please care for ourselves and reminded us that we are parents first and teachers and staff second. Simple yet powerful statements from Superintendent Sweat like; “If all else, be compassionate” and “Find the good” help buoy us up.

Colleen Cummings, one of seven high school counselors, shared that they, as counselors and social workers already had a process in place to help students — that hadn’t changed — they just needed to look at it through a different lens. Counselors, district wide, are continuing to reach out to students, parents, and teachers. They are hearing from groups of students who are facing trials they have never experienced. Principals spoke of how their building’s counselors began really reaching out to teachers and other staff in their mental health checks. Everyone is under an extreme amount of pressure, but we have resources and we have each other.

As the severe shift in job descriptions evolved Cummings found herself transform into a delivery person for the high school’s food pantry. With gloves and boxes of food in tow she became sidekick to Char Dawson, who runs the school food pantry. This dynamic duo began heartfelt deliveries to families who had been referred to their program. Dawson spoke highly of our community when she shared that, “… due to the generosity of the beautiful souls of our Heber Valley there had been money set aside just waiting for a rainy day.”

That day came and “families were just so grateful and shocked” at what the food pantry was able to deliver. With help from Superintendent Sweat’s administrative assistant, Stacy Moore, they were able to work with Lee’s Market to procure food with restrictive purchase limits needed for these families. As they delivered, they would hear family stories. Many had lost jobs or were self-employed. “Everyone has their own story. We’re all affected. There were nice conversations, but all are feeling some kind of pain.” Char is passionate about her job with the food pantry and shared, “We are feeding the children of Heber Valley — our children.”

Another Batman and Robin partnership are high school teacher Kim Foy and Hispanic Family Coordinator, Angelica Sanchez Zelaya. Together they tracked down high school students who had no access to internet, and needed food, or learning devices. They delivered 30 packets to students so they could continue learning in one day. Of course their safety and that of their students was of utmost importance. The drop offs were completed before a text or call went out from a good social distance to make students aware that there had been a delivery on their porch.

Zoom, a virtual classroom if you will, became another preferred method of delivery. Together they muddled through connecting students one by one. Angelica breaks language barriers for both Spanish speaking students and parents. Kim, who specializes in teaching reading, unlocks knowledge for students.

Zelaya shares, “It has been tough for everyone. However, in our experience when we went to visit all these people, I grew as a person. I realized how blessed we are to be in a community that helps each other with resources. With people willing to learn, willing to teach, willing to participate, and willing to be volunteers. These wonderful teachers are doing everything they can to make it happen, and administrators are right there in the middle of the war trying to help us. It has been beautiful… everyone wants to push this wagon. In the past few weeks I have connected with more parents than ever. And that’s my job; to connect with my community to get involved in their children’s education.”

When talking about our outstanding parents we need to expand that appreciation to every parent of every child in our system. Principal Dave McNaughton of Timpanogos Middle School put it well when he said we need to “throw a big bone to all the parents.” Each principal spoke highly of parents and their constructive feedback. They have generally been very kind, understanding, appreciative and helpful in facilitating their children’s learning. As teachers and administration we realize that teaching isn’t easy and we are so proud of the parents who have stepped up to the plate and bore an additional burden during this time. We realize that many parents are either out of work or trying to work from home. No one is in an ideal situation, but everyone is shining through the adversity.

Principal Justin Kelly of Rocky Mountain Middle School stressed that everything really has been a group effort. Sharing the story of a founding father, Henry Knox, and his arduous trip to retrieve 56 cannons from Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War, Kelly told his staff, “We’re going to get cannons; because we have to defend education… we need to get curriculum to our students… it’s going to be messy, it’s going to be hard. We have children who need education and we are going to do it.” Kelly stated, “We hit the ground running. That was the cool thing to see.”

This idea rang true district wide as everyone rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Principal DeAnna Lloyd shared that, “we just couldn’t do it without the spirit of collaboration among teachers.” Wasatch County School District has been highly trained in what is called the Professional Learning Community Process or PLC Process. We know we make the most substantial gains for our students when we work together as a team. We saw our training fall into place within our buildings, within our district, and throughout our community. Professional Educators looked to each others’ skill sets and shared brilliance to pivot education as we have known it for over 200 years to an entirely new approach overnight. It has not been easy. It’s been messy and exhausting. However, we continue to pull through as a team.

TEAMWORK

Teamwork is dream work, this is what we know and live by. Techie team members found ways to deliver our messages. A number of teachers jumped right on board teaching live lessons to a range of ages in their respective digital classrooms. Music, Library, P.E. and Art specialists and counselors joined class meetings and began creating their own lessons and set of resources for students linked to their web pages and online classes, or broadcast through our social media links.

We really have to hand it to our Special Education department as well as our Related Service providers. Related services include our physical and occupational therapists, our speech and language therapists, vision therapists, motor aids, school psychologists, health aides, and nursing staff. These individuals have been putting in long hours to be sure students with disabilities have equitable access to curriculum. Creativity and parental support have been crucial in serving every last student in the best way we can dream up.

High School announcements have continued each day led by students, Principal Stephanie Discher has continued working to recognize student birthdays, Principal Ryan Brown still gifts his crowd smiles daily on his Joke of the Day Flipgrid where students also post their jokes. Many have helped with cleaning, food delivery, creating read aloud videos for students, even videoing craft projects and tutorials. One aide made an Easter cookie tutorial for students. J.R. Smith Principal, Ryan Brown, spoke of entering the school one evening to see custodian Leo Wood hard at work, in his face shield and gloves, sanitizing the building for the safety of the staff. Our custodians are wonderful examples of character and serious work ethic. Custodian Todd Kelly of Midway Elementary was given a spontaneous ovation in their staff room to show appreciation for his hard work. We really could brag on every employee of our district family!

MOVING FORWARD

We can see amazing dividends. Our educational tool kit has been tremendously enlarged. Parents and teachers have become united in the interest of our valley’s children. We have seen teachers who were previously unable to converse with students due to cancer treatments, cesarean sections, or other health restrictions who have been able to interact with their classes in a way we’ve never before experienced.

This unprecedented situation has changed the way we approach teaching and learning. Principal Tod Johnson of the high school voiced his excitement in the possibilities of us falling away from the idea that education is about checking boxes. Maybe now we can learn to engage in learning for the joy of learning. Technology is helping us learn anything we want to learn. We have all become tech savvy through necessity. And just like a fine piece of steel that is honed in a flame, we are all taking heat and becoming stronger for it.

At the end of the day the heroes we must not forget are the children. Principal Stephanie Discher said it well, “the most important reason for what we do is the kids. They are so brave. We need them as much as they need us.” The crowning moments as a teacher have been watching our students’ faces pop onto our screens. Faces of your children we have been missing and love dearly. Tears stream down our cheeks when we get to connect face to face… even if it is from a distance on an electronic device. Those little pieces of our hearts are still out there. They have lined the streets as we have paraded in decorated cars around our school boundaries as far away as Todd Hollow to well within the heart of Heber Valley. They have paraded past us in vehicles as we stand 6 feet apart holding signs in front of our schools. We have sent messages of love and encouragement to each other with posters, emails, and voice messages. We are making history. We’re proud that our educational front in Wasatch County School District is powered by so much good. Where love is, you find beauty. Through this all, there sure is a lot of beauty.

The scene before me is reminiscent of the old Western song lyrics, “empty saddles in the old corral.” Saddles, tack, and spurs now sit quiet and gather dust, guitars lie where memories of Western melodies waft, but Bob’s eyes still twinkle.

Bob McPhie is one of the few great American Cowboys left in the Heber Valley, not to mention, one of my childhood idols. I fondly recall sitting in the grandstands of the old local rodeo arena beside my grandpa. I would balance my popcorn on my lap and clap for Bob as he rode in the grand entry serpentine. Bob served for twenty-five years as the Rodeo Chairman of Heber’s Mountain Valley Stampede. Bob spent most of his life on the back of a horse. Some of his earliest memories are of riding behind his mother’s saddle, while she held his brother Joe in front. The three of them would ride over to Little Valley, where his father was herding sheep. In his low, slow drawl, he shares, “None of us had cars when I was a young person. There was only one car in our whole high school. The next best thing to have in them days was a good horse. My dad bought my first horse from Sweats over on Center Creek. We bred her to a paint horse, Ol’ Paint, that Dean Clyde owned. We got a beautiful paint horse out of it, and its name was Tango. And I rode that little horse forever and ever.”

When he was a boy, Tango was sighted outside a sheep camp, giving Bob away after he swiped a few firecrackers herders used to scare coyotes off. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, depending on how you look at it, his grandfather was the sheriff of Heber. When he found Bob, the sheriff sentenced him to a week’s worth of haying in Wallsberg to pay for his bit of mischief-making.

Don’t Fence Me In

Bob’s best friend all through school was Ardean Clyde, my grandmother. As a young boy, Bob and my grandma ran wild. They rode horses everywhere, always together. Bob chuckles at his younger self, remembering a very long horse ride with no bathroom break — due to embarrassment. The two of them were bringing horses back to Heber from Hannah. He claims with a grin that it near killed him.

Bob was born May 22, 1930, to Less McPhie, a miner and sheepherder and Maude, his loving mother, who cherished her time as a housewife and served up the “world’s best” shakes and a mean nut sundae at Palace Drug. Bob has always loved sheep and began herding at a young age following the footsteps of his father. His grandmother recorded in her journal how proud she was of Bob, who at age 15, returned from sheep camp with $50 in his pocket. He had been the Camp Jack; this title entailed such things as packing water, feeding horses, doing quite a bit of the cooking, little odds and ends around camp, and moving camps with teams of horses.

When Bob was 17, he worked for Bill and Erve Jordan. Midseason, the herder got sick and had to quit. Erve instructed Bob to move a herd of 1000 head of ewes and lambs out of the head of Wolf Creek. He woke that morning bright-eyed and chipper but soon felt a sinking feeling of despair upon discovering that every horse had taken off in the night. He began his first day as herder alone on the top of Wolf Creek with no horses. This lesson was the beginning of an education from the mountains as a herder. Bob eventually found the horses quietly grazing in a mountain meadow not too far from camp. Bob’s come a long way from that first experience. After spending a lifetime immersed in the field of large animals, and working in the saddle, Bob’s wisdom of all the facets of livestock production is vast. “You learn a few things out there,” he smiles sagely.

Home, Home On The Range

A man of God and country, Bob has served both throughout his 90 years. As a young man, Bob enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. While his ship was docked in Long Beach, he met a lovely long-legged lady. Although Bob went out with her just enough to make her boyfriend real mad, the California beauty captured Bob’s heart. After his discharge, a few months later, this country boy returned home to Heber and sent Miss Mitzi a ring through the mail. She called him to accept his proposal. He drove to California, and they returned to Heber City as Mr. and Mrs. Bob McPhie.

Determined to make something of his life, never straying from his passion for livestock, Bob attended BYU’s Animal Science Program. Now married and needing to care for his family, Bob began working nights as a miner. His sweetheart, Mitzi, often attended his classes taking copious notes to share with him when they were home together. His professors saw the dedication and teamwork of this remarkable couple, and realizing that he was working himself to death, suggested a better job, one where Bob could use his love of Animal Science and agricultural background. His connections at the university gave him a foot in the door at Roper’s Stock Yard in the Basin. From there, he went to work for Hesson-Clark Animal Health Company, working mainly with poultry, and then landed a job with Bayer.

Bob enjoyed a successful career as a pharmaceutical representative for Bayer in their large animal sector for 35 years before retiring. Respected as he was in the industry, he was asked to return for another two years as a consultant. Bob also served on the Utah Cattlemen’s Association for twelve years as a committee member. His service with them melded well with his day job. He cooked a lot of beef to promote the beef industry and represent Bayer. He had quite the cooking outfit rigged up on a fancy trailer. It had a big round fire pot where he would cook the beef attached to the end of a pitchfork. The meat was stripped off and threaded onto kabobs to serve thousands of people at events like BYU tailgate parties.

Get Along Little Doggies

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Bob lived in Caldwell Idaho, where he met up with another friend from Heber, Lyle Buhler. Both were huge rodeo fans and roped a lot putting together several roping events and jackpots. Champ Gross, President of Calf News magazine out of California and Tom Hovedun, Secretary of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association, approached Bob and Lyle about launching what is now known as the International Feedlot Cowboy Association. They reached out to cattle feedlots from California to Kansas and Nevada to Canada. A large organization was formed, and ropings followed, beginning regionally, with winners advancing to the finals. Bob served as president of the association for 20 years. In 1981 Bob and his good friend Don Simms won the World Championship team roping in Elko Nevada. Bob still sports his buckle today. Now as many as 900 roping teams compete in the world finals.

When Bob made his way back home to Heber, his dad had a thoroughbred mare bred to a famous cow horse, Keno Blanton. From that breeding came Bob’s 16-hand, jet-black gelding Keno. Keno is one of the best rope horses Heber Valley has ever known. Performance speaks for itself, and word spread far and wide across the west. Keno carried several good cowboys to victory, including ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee, Leo Camarillo. Bob was offered tremendous amounts of money for Keno. A couple of Texans at a roping event handed Bob a blank check and told him to fill in his price. Bob told them in no uncertain terms; it just wouldn’t work, he’s not for sale. Keno is laid to rest in the corral by Bob’s home.

Bob’s talents didn’t end at roping; his fingers were darn good at lassoing a tune too! Some of my favorite memories include Bob and his guitar, sitting around a campfire, or at my families’ barn parties, singing old cowboy songs with my grandfather. Cash was low, but the talent was high in the home of Bob’s parents. The McPhie family were very talented with music and were known to get together for reunions at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City to play and sing. Bob’s mother bought him his first guitar as a young teenager. Bob leans back in his chair as he recalls, “My Grandma McPhie took a piece of paper and drew six strings on it. She put dots where my fingers should go for the different chords. That was my first lesson. That’s how I learned to play guitar.”

Bob began singing with his cousin Joyce and later began to entertain on his own. He sang in bars and church houses across the United States throughout the years. In 1964, the last year the National Finals Rodeo was hosted in Los Angeles, Bob traveled with my grandfather, Arvin Anderson, and their friend Mont Fitzgerald to attend the rodeo. On their way home, the three stopped by a casino and bar in Las Vegas to wet their whistle. It just so happened that there was a talent show going on. Mont disappeared from the table and, upon his return, proudly announced, “You boys better get ready. You’re up next.” Shocked, the two gathered their composure. Grandpa grabbed a guitar, and the two swaggered to the stage and started to sing. Mont’s plan played out well as he passed his hat around the crowd for change. In the end, those two cowboys won the whole kit and caboodle. I asked what they won. With a sly smile, Bob replied, “Some more drinks.”

Believe

One Sunday, while at a roping event in Idaho with his son Brett, a prompting struck Bob like a lightning bolt. He knew this was not where he should be on Sunday. This life-changing moment led to years of devotion to his God. Some of Bob’s most cherished years were spent as the bishop of Center Creek Ward for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Bob recalls a conversation with a young man who couldn’t imagine how this bishop could possibly understand his view as he’d been doing a bit of drinking. Bishop Bob told him that he’s, “spilt more of that crap than you’ve ever drank, so don’t try to tell me I don’t know what it is.” This ‘been there done that’ perspective has helped him reach hearts that are a little tighter at entry. He recalls sharing the mic with and singing at funerals of characters in the valley who may have been a bit rough around the edges, but these folks are near and dear to Bob’s heart. As bishop, he tended to run things just a little unconventionally. Sometimes swearing a little over the pulpit and bending minor rules, such as no guitars in Sunday meetings.

A mischievous grin spread across his face as he told me about picking up his guitar one Sunday morning. Mitzi asked him where he was going with it. He told her, “I’m taking it to church.” He explained it was his good friends’, Brother and Sister Ryan’s 65th anniversary, and that he was going to sing them a song. Mitzi retorted, “Bob you’re not supposed to do that, and you know it!”

“Who the hell’s gonna stop me? I’m the bishop!” She resigned, “Well, go ahead then.”

Midmeeting, sure enough, he called a halt to everything, had the Ryan’s stand up, and he sang to them, “When your hair has turned to silver, I’ll love you just the same…”

Later in life, Bob’s guitar traveled with him to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he and Mitzi served two missions for his church. When he returned to Heber, he joined the local Senior Citizen’s band. I believe that to date, Bob has sung at more funerals than most undertakers have attended.

Bob has enjoyed many accomplishments with his talents, in addition to an impressive career, but Bob’s most proud of his family. His dear wife Mitzi is his cherished partner, and their five children, Bobbie, Bret, Kris, Wendy Sue, and Bart, are his treasures. Bob has suffered loss, as Mitzi, Kris, Wendy Sue, and Bart have all passed on from this world. Yet he finds joy in being surrounded by a flurry of his precious grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His seasoned advice to me about my husband, came from his favorite song, Have I Told You Lately that I Love You? “Don’t forget to tell him you love him.”

Take Me Back To My Boots & Saddle

Sitting quietly in his chair with the chickens pecking in the yard, Bob has watched just shy of a century pass by in this beautiful mountain valley we call home. Bob has lived a full life doing what he loves with those he loves, both two-footed and four-footed. So it really should come as no surprise that Bob’s first and last jobs were on his horse riding range.

While in his twilight years, Bob went back to being in the saddle all day ridding the forest range for the Forest Service. Bob became great friends with the sheepherders whom he shared the mountain with. They would come each morning to his camp and help him saddle his horse and mount up. They got to thinking and asked him how he managed to get off later in the day. Bob told them, “I manage.” This gritty old cuss rigged up a rope at camp, that he’d trained his horse to walk under as he grasped the line, allowing it to pull him to the ground — that my friends, is a cowboy determined to live his dream till the end.