EDUCATION PARTNER: Mike Chittom, who passed away in January, pictured last year at a Rotary Club of Tulsa meeting where he was recognized for leading the club’s long-time contributions and support of Celia Clinton Elementary School. His Rotary Club was honored as the 2007 Partner of the Year by the Tulsa Metro Chamber for its work with the students at Celia Clinton. From left are Celia Clinton Principal Cindy Taylor, Chittom, 2007 Rotary President Linda Bradshaw and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Michael Zolkoski.
DON SIBLEY, Tulsa Metro Chamber
Mike Chittom was Santa Claus, everybody’s favorite uncle and a great big cuddly Teddy Bear all rolled up into one.
Right about the time Mike joined the Rotary Club of Tulsa, the club adopted Celia Clinton Elementary School, an at-risk school just north of Pine Street on Harvard Avenue.
Mike became chairman of the Celia Clinton Rotary committee.
It was a match made in the highest echelons of Heaven.
What started as a group to give support to a downtrodden school by doing such things as providing tissue paper and school supplies soon became a passion for Mike.
He urged Rotarians to come to Celia Clinton and teach the kids one-on-one to read, write and do math. Under Mike’s constant prodding, chess clubs and math clubs were established. How important were those mentors? In every single case over the years the children getting individual attention from an adult saw their test scores rise from one year to the next.
It was a great start, but Mike started going further. Clothes were donated for the youngsters. At times they wouldn’t come to school because they were ashamed of the way they looked. One cold day Mike saw a girl shivering in a T-shirt on the playground. Asked why she hadn’t worn her coat, she said she didn’t have one. She went home with one. The next day she was shivering again. Her coat had been sold. She went home with another one and Mike made sure she kept it.
Thanks to Rotary and a dedicated school staff, Celia Clinton has long been off the at-risk rolls. The reason Mike made so much progress at the school is that he adored the kids, and they returned the affection with gusto.
He carried the message to other areas, flying all over the country to talk other Rotary Clubs into taking similar action. He was invited to district meetings. He seemed tireless.
“Everybody just loved Mike,” says Cindy Taylor, the school’s principal. “Mike gave them all unconditional love. Even if a kid was brand new, he’d get a look and a smile and would be made to feel special.
“Mike would take the time to stop, look at a person and ask about them in a way that made them know he really was interested. Many people are happy if they’ve improved the lives of one or two people; Mike truly touched hundreds.”
The variety of Mike’s contributions was incredible. For students who had no discipline problems the previous quarter he would arrange, during school hours, for pizza parties in which popcorn would be handed out by Rotarians and bingo games would be played for prizes. There were few problems with rowdiness before the parties; no one wanted to be left out.
Principal Taylor recalls how hard it was to get Mike out the school door. “If we had someplace we needed to be, I’d have to get Mike started 15 minutes ahead of time because he would want to stop and talk to all the kids in the hall, and there were always kids in the hall.”
He will not stop and talk to them any more. On Jan. 17 he chatted with Cindy Taylor and her staff about a pizza party they were going to have. The next day he was found dead. He was only 56.
The grief councilors flooded the school. Many of the children broke down in uncontrollable tears. Rotarians talked to the kids, doing what they could to ease their grief.
Celia Clinton will remember Mike in its own quiet way. On the wall as one enters is a picture of a tiny child wearing a pretty dress. It is of Celia Clinton, who died in 1904 at the age of four. Her grandfather gave the fledgling Tulsa school board some land for new schools and it was decided to name one after her.
Her picture is going to be removed from the single frame and be put into a double frame. The second frame will contain a picture of Mike Chittom.
Shortly after Mike’s death, Cindy Taylor was stopped at a red light when the car next to her honked. Taylor recognized a former student, who told her that years before when her mother had deserted the family she was walking down the Celia Clinton hallway distraught and wondering what would happen to her. Mike saw her and asked what was wrong. She told him.
Mike put a hand on her shoulder and told her not to worry, that she would get help and not be left alone. It comforted her. Now she lives with her grandmother.
That was Mike.