- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

DUMAS, Texas (AP) - Sara Baker knew someone was coming to her Dumas home last weekend. T.K., her husband, told her that much, but that was about it.

Then around noon on a Saturday last month, two guests arrived - a woman, in her upper 30s, and an older man. Sara didn’t recognize her until she introduced herself - “Kristine.”

“All she had to do was tell me her name,” Sara told the Amarillo Globe-News (http://bit.ly/1Q855D0). “Then I recognized her and her dad.”

It was Kristine Engle. Well, actually it was Kristine Erwin, long since married and a professor of creative writing at West Chester University in suburban Philadelphia.

The last time the two were together was 29 years ago - the end of the school year 1986. It was at Lakehoma Elementary in Mustang, Okla., an Oklahoma City bedroom community. Kristine was in second grade, and Sara, then Sara Brawley, was her teacher.

“She had changed, but she was still very much the same woman,” Kristine said. “She had the same smile, that same rhythm of speech. At dinner that night, she winked at me, and I remember that wink. It was wonderful to see this woman. In many ways, she had not changed at all.”

They were last together at an unspeakably awful time in an 8-year-old’s life. On April 23, 1986, Kathy Sue Engle, Kristine’s mother, was abducted in a parking lot at Oklahoma City’s Shepherd Mall. One week later, her body was found near Sayre, Okla.

There’s nothing in a teacher’s handbook on dealing with a young child whose mother was murdered, especially when she is one of a classroom full of students. It was just Sara’s fourth year as a teacher.

“Your instincts tell you how much to do,” she said. “All of us wanted to help this little girl. Your heart hurts for her so badly. We just wanted to show some compassion and comfort in some way.”

It was just after the abduction, and Kristine had missed a couple of days of school. She got a call from a friend that Miss Brawley and two other teachers were coming to her house.

Kristine put teachers on a pedestal, and so she put on a special yellow dress.

Sara was at the door with an African violet flower because she knew Kristine loved purple, a large card made of construction paper and banana pudding. She didn’t like banana pudding, but so what.

“I was 8,” she said. “I loved the fact I was getting all this attention.”

That summer, before Sara would marry T.K. and move to Stillwater, she had Kristine to her house for lunch. She made cheese nachos and lemonade. Afterward, she took her to Wal-Mart in Yukon. In the children’s toys, Sara asked if she ever had Silly Putty. When Kristine said no, Sara bought her some.

Small acts of kindness. Seemingly.

Sara did write Kristine a letter as she left. The next year, in 1987, Kristine and her dad, Dawson, dropped by to see now Sara Baker briefly, but that was it.

Like so many encounters in our lives, this was like a soothing breeze - here for a moment, then gone.

“It didn’t have the impact until later and I started reflecting back on it,” she said.

Sara and T.K., a research agronomist, have two grown children. They moved to Dumas in 2000 where Sara is a third-grade teacher at Sunset Elementary.

Kristine moved to Shawnee, graduated high school, received a degree from Oklahoma State, a masters at New York University and a Ph.D from the University of Houston. She is in her fourth year as a creative writing professor at West Chester.

She started that position about the same time her mother’s murder was finally solved. One of Oklahoma City’s most infamous and longest cold cases was solved in 2011 when a drifter, Kyle Eckhardt, didn’t plead guilty, but accepted a plea deal of life in prison without parole rather than a death penalty trial.

That may have spurred Kristine to reflect, to inventory her own past. So she began to reach out to others. Finding Sara was a challenge.

She knew Sara had married, but Baker was such a common name. At one point, she called every Baker in the OKC phone directory, but to no avail.

A former teacher at Lakehoma told Kristine of Sara’s husband’s name and they had been active in a Yukon church. She put “Sara Brawley Baker” in an Internet search and a trust appeared with “Dumas, Texas” mentioned.

That led to a more specific search, and a Facebook page appeared from a Dumas church with a birthday greeting to a Sara Baker. It had her picture, and Kristine had found her.

She reached T.K., told him the story, and asked what he thought of a surprise visit. He thought it was a great idea.

So on the last Saturday of last month, Kristine flew from Houston, where she had a conference, to Amarillo. Her father met her there from the Oklahoma City area, and they drove to Dumas.

She carried with her a purple and yellow flower arrangement - purple for the African violet, yellow for the dress she wore that day - some Silly Putty and a personal letter, but most of all, she carried an intense desire to express gratitude for kindness shown in the lowest point of her life.

“Part of me wanted to reach out and say as a fellow teacher that you made a difference in my life,” Kristine said, “but also to reach out to a kind person and say your act of kindness was not only noticed, but appreciated.”

As they left the next day, it just confirmed to Baker in a dramatic way what she already knew.

“That what we do really does register with them,” she said. “Whether it’s positive or negative, it stays with them.”

As the school year ends, it does well to remember for teacher and student especially, that small gestures are never really all that small.

___

Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com

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