CAMERON, Okla. — The Cameron Yellow Jackets and Lady Yellow Jackets have won a lot of championships from county to district to regional to state in basketball and baseball.
The greatest victory and the most difficult, in their long history was winning a court battle against an insurance company to finally get a new high school and gymnasium after a devastating fire in August 2017.
“It’s been five years in the process,” Cameron Superintendent John Long said.
Next month, more than five years later, teachers will welcome students into their new high school classrooms, and in December, a basketball will be dribbled in their new high school gymnasium.
“I think we’ll be in the high school around Thanksgiving,” Long said. “We’re hoping to be in the gymnasium in mid-December.”
The reason for the long delay was Cameron’s battle with the Oklahoma School Insurance Group, which is the only insurance company in Oklahoma for schools.
“The insurance company balked on us,” Long said. “The insurance company said we’re going to write a check for $3 million dollars, walk out the door and you won’t see us again. I said I don’t think so.”
The fire destroyed the entire high school and gymnasium, which could be accessed from the high school from a long hallway through a set of wooden double doors.
“I said give us a check for $8 million, and they laughed at me,” Long said. “They went and hired a company that told us what we could build it back for, and they were at $100 per square foot.”
Cameron’s high school and gymnasium were originally built as part of the Works Progress Administration, an employment and infrastructure program created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 during the Great Depression to put Americans to work on building projects across the United States.
More than 3,000 structures in Oklahoma, mostly schools and armories, were built during the WPA program, using a lot of native stone. The gymnasium had wooden bleachers and large wooden beams that spanned the court.
“The policy said, ‘like kind and quality’ and I told them we have a WPA building with 2-foot-thick walls, just the rock,” Long said. “So I said you’re going to build me back a building with a 2-foot rock wall. They got back with us real quick and said they couldn’t do that, that it would cost too much. They’re going off the policy, and I’m going off the policy and it says ‘like kind and quality.’ They agreed it said that but that schools these days are usually built out of brick and metal, not brick and rock. I said that’s not ‘like kind and quality.'”
The insurance company made an argument that the gymnasium floor wasn’t regulation size, which was another characteristic of WPA-era gymnasiums. When three-point lines were drawn on those older gym floors, the smaller width made the three-point stripe almost at the out-of-bounds line.
“Then they came in and said the gym floor was smaller than a regulation gym floor,” Long said. “I said yes it was, but the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the OSSAA, says that if a new gymnasium is built then it needs to be to these specs. I said it’s kind of like a fire code, and the fire code also calls for a safe room and it calls for everything to be sprinkled. We had none of that, so you’re going to have to add that to the other costs.
“They just balked.”
Then the lengthy battle really began.
“We didn’t hear from them for three or four months,” Long said. “We were calling and emailing and got no replies.”
Cameron then hired a public adjuster to get an accurate assessment as to the dollar amount required to rebuild the high school and gymnasium.
“We had gone about six months, and he said he was at about $10.5 million to rebuild this building,” Long said. “That’s what we shot for.”
They approached OSIG with that amount, and OSIG countered that as well.
“They said they could go out, too, and get somebody to tell them what to put down,” Long said. “This man is a professional, it’s what he does for a living, he’s bonded, and he just doesn’t just go make up stories. If he does that, it costs him his job because the insurance company will report him to the insurance commission. They said they weren’t paying that.”
That forced Cameron to take action, and they hired the Mansell, Engel and Cole Law Firm of Oklahoma City, which specializes in insurance cases.
“They know insurance law like I used to know baseball,” Long said. “Mark Engel took the case, and Steve Mansell assisted him. The more they got to work on it, they said we’ve got a $30 million lawsuit. That got our attention. They were going to charge us 33%, but they weren’t going to charge us anything until we got enough to build our building back. They were in our corner big-time.”
Almost two years after the fire in April 2019, the school district filed court documents in the LeFlore County District Court saying that OSIG delayed and refused to respond and wholly ignored the claim.
Joe White Jr., an attorney who graduated from Poteau High School, also wanted in on the case. His dad, the late Dr. Joe White Sr., was President at Carl Albert State College from 1975-2007, marking one of the longest sitting college president terms in the state.
“He really saved Carl Albert and turned it around,” Long said. “Joe Jr. gave the case the local touch.”
Joe Jr. also went to school with Jon Sullivan, who was the judge on the case.
“Mansell, Engle and Cole did all the legwork,” Long said. “When Joe White wanted in, they let him run the courtroom, they let him pick the jury, and they let him talk to the judge.”
OSIG countered, of course, with attorneys of their own.
“They went and hired two high-dollar lawyers, one from Dallas and one from Boston to fight us,” Long said. “Right off the bat at the end of the second day of the trial, one of the lawyers said, ‘Judge, we want to declare a mistrial.’ He asked them why, and they said. ‘J.J. is out of control.’ Joe White Jr., J.J., Sullivan had gone to school with him. He banged the gavel and said ‘motion denied, court dismissed.’ They knew all of a sudden that they were in an uphill battle.”
OSIG attorneys also tried to claim that part of the building could have been saved such as the beams and some of the walls on a newer wing of the high school.
“We had beams that got so hot, they twisted,” Long said. “They were 2½-foot beams that were twisted. They said they were still intact and could be used. They brought a guy in from New York City and he looked at it, and he tested steel and said it was still good. He picked up these little hammers and dinged on them, and grinded on them, and he said you could save this wing, the newer wing of the high school. He would not put it in writing. So he’s saying you can do this, but he’s not going to put in writing. There’s no telling what the insurance company paid to bring him in. They’re spending money in all the wrong places.”
Cameron also countered with their own expert on the beams.
“We hired a guy from Tulsa, and he came in and said absolutely not, that it’s unsafe to put kids in,” Long said. “He said it would be fine until we have high winds or heavy snow. Once we have heavy snow on it, I will not put my name on it if it comes crashing in. He signed the papers that said it would not work, that it’s got to go.”
There was a brick wall of a newer wing of the high school that was still standing after the fire, which was marked off for safety purposes.
“We had some brick walls that were surrounding that and was ready to fall,” Long said. “We had it marked off, but kids were still getting in there and climbing on it, so after about a year I took a dozer and tore it down. The insurance company got mad and said they weren’t going to rebuild that, that we couldn’t make them. I said you think you have problems, if a wall falls on a kid this is going to be a drop in the bucket for what you’re going to pay that parent and that it was going to be their fault if that wall fell and not mine. That kind of shut them up.”
The OSIG argument about the size of the floor was also interesting. The attorneys pointed out that Cameron was wanting the same size basketball court as the Chicago Bulls play on at the United Center. All regulation basketball courts are the same size, 50 feet wide by 94 feet long.
White pointed out that Cameron’s baseball field has dimensions of 310 feet down the lines and 350 feet to dead center and pointed out that Yankee Stadium is 408 feet to center and 318 and 314 down the lines in left and right, respectively.
“They said that Mr. Long wants to build an arena, and it’s going to have the same size basketball court that the Chicago Bulls play on,” Long said. “It’s going to be called the Cameron Arena, that’s true, but basketball courts are all the same size. Joe White asked me what the dimensions of Cameron’s baseball park is and asked somebody to get him the dimensions of Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. The dimensions of Cameron’s field and Yankee Stadium are fairly close. So, he said it looks to me like Cameron has been playing at Yankee Stadium way before the fire. They were all just sitting out there shaking their heads.”
OSIG also had other attorneys who were advisors.
“One was from San Francisco and two were from Philadelphia,” Long said. “I’ve always heard about these Philadelphia lawyers. Now I’ve seen them operate.”
Another local attorney who was on Cameron’s side was Belva Barber of Poteau.
“She tied up all the loose ends and she fed them lunch, she provided them their office,” Long said. “Since this was during covid, a lot of it was done through Zoom, and she took care of all of that. Their attorneys refused to come to Poteau because of covid.”
On the beginning of the fifth day of the trial on a Friday morning, OSIG made an offer on a settlement for almost $19 million. Cameron accepted, and after all expenses were paid, they had almost $12 million to build a new school and gymnasium.
“We’re putting all of it in it,” Long said. “That’s what the money is for. We didn’t buy buses or anything. The money was for the school. We’re building the nicest school that Cameron could possibly get for the money because the kids deserve it after five years.”
OSIG took the fight right down to the end, and, technically, OSIG had 60 days to pay the settlement.
“The sad thing is they had 60 days to write us a check,” Long said. “We got the check, certified mail, hand-delivered on the 60th day. They did everything they could to try to hurt us.”
The high school students have held classes all over the Cameron campus from the middle school, to the elementary school, to the junior high, wherever they could put them over the past five years. The new high school will have 11 classrooms, a science lab and a home economics kitchen. The construction is being performed by Beshears Construction of Fort Smith.
With no school and basketball teams without a home, enrollment at the school dropped with graduating classes as few as 14 a couple of years ago from as many as in the 30s as recently as 10 years ago.
“We lost students, enrollment was down, but we’re not even in the new school yet, and we’re going back up the other direction,” Long said. “I think it’s safe to say we saved a high school.”
Long is in his fifth year as superintendent and previously coached Cameron to seven of its 10 state baseball championships, but this is bigger than any of those.
“Biggest accomplishment for sure because so much of it was out of our control,” Long said. “In a baseball game, you can change the pitcher, you can change the batter, you can bunt, you can steal, you can make things happen. It’s frustrating when you can’t make things happen with the insurance company.”
Over the last five years, the basketball teams played some home games at Carl Albert State College, which was kind enough to lend out their facility until last year when the teams had to play all of their games on the road at opposing gyms.
The new scoreboard was installed last week, 900 chairback seats have been installed and the court will be installed in the next three weeks.
“That will be one of the last things they do,” Long said. “It’s changing every day now.”
Cameron Arena will accommodate, including standing room only, about 1,300 when completed.
Cameron is scheduled to host McCurtain on Dec. 16 and Braggs on Dec. 20. If the new gymnasium is ready by then, Cameron has a special celebration planned for all of those who didn’t have a home gymnasium the last five years.
“If we can make it work, before the first home basketball game on that Saturday, we would like to bring in all of those kids that didn’t get to play a game at Cameron and suit up and play a pickup game,” Long said. “They can say they got to play the first game in the new gym.”
Print Headline: Rising from the ashes
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