Members of the Blytheville School District’s Odyssey of the Mind team from Blytheville High School that earned a World’s Finals championship in 1989 were (from left) Crystal Strickland, Michael Strickland, Tommy Long, coach Michele McLeod, Harriett Hammett, first-grader Matthew McLeod and Rebecca Moore. With all of the district teams that have reached and finished impressively in the OM World’s Finals over the years, the 1989 team is the only one from Blytheville to have won the event.
By DAVID COOKE
Blytheville Schools Public Relations Director
Members of the Blytheville School District’s 1989 Odyssey of the Mind team from Blytheville High School knew they had a pretty good squad when they arrived at the World’s Finals competition in Boulder, CO. Afterall, they had cruised to championships in both the Arkansas Northeast Regional and state competitions to qualify for the worldwide event. Then again, the students also knew that this was the World’s Finals and that they would have to be at their very best, because all the other teams would be at their best. At the end of the day, however, the BHS OM team achieved a level of expertise and accomplishment that had not been equalled before, and so far not since, by any group from the district.
Upon the team’s return to Blytheville a few days later, coach Michele McLeod Dahlquist simply stated “We’re world champions!” Team members showed off the large, heavy trophy they earned for winning the championship, and each of them also received a gold medal.
“This was a very special group of students who dedicated themselves to this project, and they achieved great success,” said Mylinda Nelson, at that time the district’s director of Gifted and Talented Education who still becomes a little emotional when talking about that moment. “OM taught these individuals the skills and tenacity that has carried them through their careers, and it created a memory no one could ever take from them.”
Odyssey of the Mind is an international educational program whose mission is to provide creative problem-solving opportunities for students from the second grade through college. Through solving open-ended problems, students develop creative-thinking skills that can be applied to real-life situations.
“As my responsibilities have increased in my positions, I have still been compelled to guide students through Odyssey of the Mind because I believe so strongly in the skills we develop in our future generations as kids work through the program,” stated Dahlquist, the team’s coach. “And as education and classroom teaching have become increasingly more driven by standardized tests and scores, it is even more imperative that students have opportunities to solve open-ended problems and to manage long-term projects that help them develop strong communication, time management, project management and budgeting skills, and to work together with a group of people in a team to set and accomplish goals.”
When the school district began participating in OM, it was nothing like the worldwide event it would become at the end of the 1980s, and even less than it is today. In fact, when the first OM team from Blytheville went to the World’s Finals in 1986, the students (all 10-year-olds) sat on a football field in Flagstaff, AZ, and ultimately finished 11th in the world. At that time only first-place winners from Arkansas qualified. Five teams from the state attended that year.
The 1987 OM Finals were in Mount Pleasant, MI, near the campus of Central Michigan University. Students from BSD finished fourth that spring.
1989 marked the 10th year of the creative problem-solving competition, and IBM had just become a corporate sponsor.
Students Make Their Presence Felt
Three teams from Blytheville - the one from BHS, one from West Junior High School and one from Burdette Elementary School - attended the 1989 World’s Finals on the University of Colorado campus. The students and chaperones all flew to and from Boulder out of Memphis for the three-day competition, which was May 24-27.
Two Blytheville teams participated in the problem “Do More With Less”. The teams of five to seven students were judged in three areas regarding the competition - style, creativity (“marketing”) and spontaneous.
The BHS team that wound up winning the World’s Finals consisted of coach Michele McLeod, Tommy Long, Crystal Strickland, Michael Strickland, Harriett Hammett, Rebecca Moore and Matthew McLeod, a first-grader from then-Robinson Primary School.
The Blytheville West team members, in the Division III “Just in Time” competition, were Julie Harmon, Brad Young, Stephanie Jones, Chris Clark and Edward Rhodes, coach Sue Harmon and student coach Carey McMahan. Under OM rules, students in the ninth-12th grades all competed in Division III although the five West students were all on the Blytheville junior high campus.
The third team, from Burdette, included Kevin Patterson, Brian Needham, Destry Mason, Jennifer Robbins, Michelle Fryer and Bryan Mosely, and coaches Joy Patterson and Kwajalean Needham. That team wound up fifth in the World’s Finals.
In the “style” competition students were required to build a balsa wood structure that weighed a mere five grams but was supposed to hold at least 200 pounds. Tommy Long, a 10th-grader at the time, was the chief designer. That structure instead held 247 pounds. Five grams, according to then-assistant superintendent Janet Taylor, is approximately the weight of a nickel.
Long said at the time that the winning structure was not exactly designed according to modern engineering techniques. “It was mainly just ‘trial and error’”, he said. “We’d build one, test it and rebuild it. Mostly, the changes were just moving a diagonal crosspiece here and there. We actually made about 50 different structures before we settled on this one.” However, he wasn’t surprised that the structure held that much weight; at the state event the entry actually supported 295 pounds.
The BHS team “marketed” its problem by using a theme on the plight of the hungry and homeless. The team’s style was loosely based on the Biblical story of the five loaves of bread and two fishes. In the skit the little boy (Matthew McLeod) has some food, but as he gives it away to others that food is multiplied, hence the theme of “Do More With Less”.
In the “Spontaneous” category, each team of students, with no coaches and no one else to provide advice, were taken into a room, where judges read the problem to them. Each team was given one minute to think about the problem and two minutes to then respond. Nelson said later that the BHS team recorded the highest “Spontaneous” score in the world for the World’s Finals.
Nelson added that when not competing the students accomplished a little “sightseeing”. The team from Burdette visited Pike’s Peak and the West team that competed in “Just in Time” went to the Rocky Mountain National Park, but the students had to eat their lunch in the van because it was snowing. Some of the students also visited the Denver Mint, the Denver Zoo and the state capitol.
The 1989 BHS OM World’s Finals Champions
“Where Are They Now?”
A listing of the members of the 1989 BHS OM World’s Finals team and what they are doing today:
• Tommy Long, at the time a sophomore at Blytheville High School, is a member of the BHS Class of 1991. After graduation he went to the University of Arkansas, where he received his degree in Engineering. While a student at UA, Long and three other former Blytheville OM students convinced the leaders of the College of Engineering to allow them to participate in OM’s Division IV. That team won the 1992 World Finals. Long is now with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and he is currently working on the project to correct the problem with the Mosul Dam in Iraq because the dam is in danger of collapsing. Long, who is married, will be back home in May.
• Dr. Crystal Strickland, also a 10th-grader, is also a member of the BHS Class of 1991. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in chemistry from Xavier University in New Orleans, and later graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School. After completing her residency at the University of Chicago, Strickland is in private practice at Obstetrical and Gynecological Associates in Valparaiso, IN. She is married and has two children.
• Her brother Michael Strickland graduated from BHS in 1993. Single, he earned his Master’s Degree in theater from New York City and is now working in Chicago.
• Harriett Hammett, a 1991 BHS graduate, completed her registered nursing degree at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez, Ms., in 1994 and is enrolled at Belhaven University in Jackson, MS., pursuing a degree in Healthcare Management and Administration, with a completion date of December 2019. She is employed with Centene Corporation - Superior Health Plan in the Dallas region as a service coordinator case manager for its MMP Medicaid and Medicare Program. Hammett has 23 years nursing experience now specializing in managed care, and she also works part time as a pallitive care and crisis on-call nurse for a local hospice company. Hammett has four children, ranging from ages 9-19, and lives in Carrollton, Texas.
• Rebecca Moore, a 1991 BHS graduate, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Christian Brothers University in Memphis. Today she is manager of a FedEx Office center in Memphis.
• Matthew McLeod, only seven when he competed with the 1989 BHS team, moved from Blytheville about 1990. After graduating high school, he earned his Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Sam Houston State University. McLeod currently works at Lockheed Martin and the NASA Johnson Space Center as a computer program director, writing computer codes for the Orion project to take astronauts to Mars. He is single.
• Michele McLeod Dahlquist continued to coach OM teams while working for Blytheville. After leaving the area, she spent five years in middle school classrooms and GT programs in Roanoke, Va., and 11 years as a GT magnet coordinator, instructional coordinator, assistant principal and principal in Houston. She and her husband have four grown sons and four grandchildren, with a fifth grandchild on the way.
Excitement About Winning
When the time came for the World’s Finals winners to be announced, Nelson quietly noticed that television cameras covering the event began assembling near where the BHS team had gathered. “Although I didn’t say anything at the time, that told me these students just might be the champions,” she said. When it was announced that the Blytheville School District team had indeed won, the students simple ran down the stairs and accepted the trophy from Dr. Sam Micklus, the founder of OM. And that is when they received their gold medals.
Nelson added that she really appreciated the support from the approximately 31 Blytheville residents and parents who attended the closing ceremonies in Boulder. “We appreciated the support and also all of the ‘hog-calling’ for our students,” she said.
When the group from Blytheville flew back to Memphis they boarded the bus to return home. On the way back they were pulled over by an Arkansas State Trooper, who entered the bus and asked them what they were doing. Of course, Nelson was aware that the State Police had been informed ahead of time of the BHS team’s accomplishments, and she knew his intentions.
When told that they were on their way back to Blytheville after winning at the World’s Finals, the trooper came clean and admitted that he was sent there to escort them back to the school. A little later Sen. Dale Bumpers spoke of the team’s accomplishment on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and later sent an official copy of the page from the Congressional Record to the students. Nelson framed the document and provided it to Blytheville High School upon her retirement in 2008.
“While working in OM, these students learned to appreciate one another’s traits, abilities and ideas, and this gave them the skills they could not learn anywhere else,” Nelson continued. “It gave them an understanding that has enriched their lives.”
Then-Gov. Clinton, who had hosted the team in the Governor’s Reception Room in May at the Capitol in Little Rock after their state OM championship, attended a June 13 reception during a combined meeting of the civic clubs at the Holidome in Blytheville, recognizing the team’s international success. Team members demonstrated their winning solution to the problem “Do More With Less” during that reception.
“I began my teaching career in Blytheville; I was a traditionally trained teacher,” Dahlquist added. “I watched kids going to the Blytheville PLUS program in a portable building outside my classroom window, and they were excited about learning and so invested in their work. I thought, ‘THAT’S where I want to teach!’, and went through the process to get certified in Gifted and Talented Education. My teaching evolved through my experience with Odyssey of the Mind, and I designed my classrooms and pull-out programs into problem-solving labs where students learned required content through project-based learning experiences.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Much appreciation is expressed to my former co-worker Mylinda Nelson for suggesting the story on the 1989 OM World’s Finals team, for providing newspaper clippings of the event and for the e-mail addresses of the team members, and to Michele Dahlquist for e-mailing the copy of the 1989 OM team photo that is on page one.