Sometimes life will bring you full circle.
It’s funny like that.
Karen Gray grew up in Wayne and is a product of Wayne Public Schools from first grade through graduation with the class of 1975.
Unsure about a future career, she wasn’t quite ready for college.
So she enrolled in the American Broadcasting School. She would go on to be a disc jockey for a Frederick radio station in addition to recording commercials for KOMA in Oklahoma City and WNAD near Norman.
She also worked as a dispatcher for the Norman Police Department and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Aircraft Division at Wiley Post Airport.
For a time, she considered joining the OHP as a trooper.
She had to go through the academy and then came a “life-changing moment.”
She was working on the 4th of July and there was a double drowning at Lake Thunderbird.
Two Hispanic adults, members of the same family, died that day, their drownings witnessed by several young relatives.
The traumatized children were taken to the police department
“The kids were so helpless,” Karen recalled. “We all felt helpless. They couldn’t speak English.”
She abandoned her law enforcement plans and in the fall of 1978 enrolled in the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha.
She majored in education and received her bachelor’s degree in 1981.
Her first teaching job was working for Danny Jacobs at Purcell Middle School. She taught seventh and eighth grade English and, she laughed, a physical education class.
“He truly made a lasting impression on me,” she said of Jacobs. “I loved working for Danny.”
She was only one year at Purcell and then taught at Lindsay for 12 years, during which time she got a master’s degree in counseling from East Central University.
Karen went on to complete a degree in school administration from the University of Oklahoma.
She next worked one year as a high school counselor at Pauls Valley, followed by six years working for Noble Public Schools.
There her titles included elementary and junior high counselor, junior high assistant principal and elementary school principal.
For 13 years, Karen was a counselor at Edmond Santa Fe High School.
When her mother, Wanda Gray, was diagnosed with dementia, Karen retired from Edmond Santa Fe and returned to Wayne to care for her.
But she wasn’t quite ready to give up her career completely.
In the 2014-15 school year, she began working for Wayne Public Schools.
Then-superintendent Zach Powell took her at her word when she told him, “Mr. Powell, wherever you need me, put me.”
He gave her assignments ranging from classroom aide to teaching social studies at the middle school and online courses at the high school.
Powell resigned at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
High school principal Toby Ringwald applied for and got the superintendent’s job and almost as an afterthought, Karen put in her application for principal.
“And I got it,” she said.
Now she’s back where she started – the same halls, the same classrooms, but a new role.
Before the start of the school year, Karen went into paint her new office. There was a small wooden desk in one corner on which Ringwald had placed a printer.
He told her she could keep the old desk if she wanted or set it outside the office for the janitor to dispose of.
But when Karen moved it out from the wall, she found her mother’s name on it.
It had been a desk her mother used during her own 33-year teaching career at Wayne.
“I thought ‘OK, Lord, I’m right where I need to be,’” she recalled.
The small desk is a treasured addition to her office.
If Karen’s path to a career in education seems roundabout, her mother’s was even more remarkable.
Wanda was 16 and a junior at Wayne High School when she dropped out to marry Bob Gray in the late 1940s.
Four years later, they had Karen’s older sister, Mara, and four years after that Karen was born.
All that time and for years afterward, Wanda yearned to complete her own education and realize her dream of becoming a teacher.
When both of her daughters were in elementary school, Wanda returned to Wayne High School, where she joined classmates a generation younger than herself. She finished the second semester of her junior year and then her entire senior year, graduating with the Class of 1968.
To this day, Karen marvels at the courage it took a grown woman with two children in school to go back and finish.
Wanda Gray taught two years at Storey School west of Maysville and then 33 years for Wayne Public Schools.
She retired from teaching in 1999 and today her picture hangs in the high school library. Bob Gray’s picture is with the Class of 1947.
“When I got into this profession, I told her I want to see it from one end to the other,” Karen said.
Both parents are gone now. Bob died in 2007 and Wanda in 2016.
Karen’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1997. She is now married to Lindall McLemore, who retired three years ago from the Edmond Police Department.
“I have a wonderful man who spoils me rotten,” she said.
They are settled north of Maysville not far from her family home place.
She sometimes misses being in the classroom and is always the first to volunteer to sub for any of her faculty who are sick.
With her own career in education measured in decades – nearly four so far – Karen is acutely aware of changes from the lack of funding for public education to the drastic difference in family dynamics.
“Grandparents raising kids,” she said. “It is what it is. That’s the world we live in.”
“Kids are so tech oriented, I swear they are born hard-wired,” she joked.
There’s a sign on her office wall that reads “Thankful & Blessed.”
It’s how she looks at her life and her future.
“That sums it up,” she said. “There’s no other profession I would want to get into. This is it. I can truly say I have the best kids, best teachers and best parents ever.”
That said, she’s not ready to close this chapter of her life just yet.
“I still have a few more years left in me,” she said. “The Good Lord put me where I needed to be.”