Mystery of stolen painting partially solved

Richard Chase Special to the Durant Democrat

September 28, 2013

The mystery of a stolen painting returned after more than 40 years has been partially solved after a story appearing in the Durant Daily Democrat brought numerous phone calls and media attention.

The painting of George Washington, stolen by two boys in 1969 or 1970 from the George Washington Elementary School, was rescued as it was going up in flames by James Simmons, who was reluctant to come forward before now. After the story received so much attention he was persuaded by a friend to tell his story. Simmons who is now a retired Corps of Engineer ranger doesn’t know the exact date except that it was in warm weather.

“I was at a friend’s home when these two boys came to his house to show him what they had stolen from the school,” said Simmons. “They were going to burn the evidence and when they set the fabric on fire I stomped it out and asked them if I could have it and they said, ‘Yes.’”

The fabric painting only had slight damage so Simmons took it home and rolled it up and put it away in a safe place. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago he happened to run across it and decided it should be returned to its place in history. He gave the painting to Ken Ervin, a friend he had known during his law enforcement days. Ervin took it to the Three Valley Museum last week, and when the story appeared last Sunday, a number of former students contacted Nancy Ferris, curator of the museum.

Ferris asked Janie Umsted, an art teacher and local artist, to examine the painting to see if she could determine the history of the portrait. After an examination, Umsted said it was not hand painted and appeared to be mass produced. The fabric may be from Europe and was in use during the 1930s. The cracks in the painting are authentic and probably from the same time period.

“We had calls from a number of former students and teachers from George Washington school,” said Ferris. “The oldest was from Haljean Housey Hartin who started there in 1948 and the painting was hanging in the auditorium back then.”

A small gathering of former students all made the same observation about the eyes of George Washington in the portrait that they seemed to follow you wherever you went. All had fond memories of the school assemblies with the American flag where they gathered each morning and recited the Pledge of Allegiance with the picture of George Washington peering down upon them.

The school built in 1939 was closed in 2003 but continues to serve the community with Durant Schools Vision Academy and the cafeteria has been turned into a feeding program operated by Families Feeding Families. Helen Chalk Gray, one of the former students who also did her student teaching there, was among those attending a meeting Friday.

In addition to local television coverage of the original story last week, Channel 5 Television in Oklahoma City had a short news report and Channel 9 was here on Friday to do a segment. Channel 9 reporter Steve Shaw said the newscast might be picked up by CNN or other national news network in the future.

The portrait has found its place in Durant history at the museum as part of an early day classroom scene where it hangs with Abraham Lincoln, the American Flag and other artifacts. Simmons, who doesn’t get around well anymore, was pleased to know that the picture he had such fond memories of may now be enjoyed by everyone who tours the museum and especially those former students who remember it hanging on the wall.

There are still two mysteries left and since the statute of limitations has expired, the two boys who stole the painting, now in their sixties, the point is mute. Just when the school acquired the painting is still unanswered and the museum will continue to search for that answer.