- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 17, 2018

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Armed with a garden hose and grit, the Thomasmas make an ice rink from scratch every year at Kelly Elementary School.

The family and the school are inextricably linked and have been since 1979. Ken and Bobbi Thomasma taught at Kelly Elementary for decades, he in the basement with kindergartners through second-graders, she upstairs with third- through sixth-graders. Now the school is kindergarten through fifth grade.

Their son, Dan Thomasma, began working at the school in 1984, starting as a part-time teacher sharing his father’s salary while Ken transitioned into writing children’s books full time. The younger Thomasma, who taught his own now-grown children, Melissa and Oliver, eventually became a beloved head teacher, retiring in 2014.

Now he and his father maintain the ice rink that brings joy to the 49 students who attend the elementary school north of town.

Ken Thomasma, 87, used to make the rink at night, long after students had left.



“You teach all day,” he said. “Then you go home, you have supper - early - and you come out.”

On a sunny but brisk January day students twirled their way around the rink. Many seemed so at ease it appeared as if they were racing around a playground in their sneakers, not a frozen body of water with blades on their feet.

They learn from playing together on the ice, said Dan Thomasma, 61.

“We always thought of recess as being another part of the curriculum,” he said.

After 38 years the Thomasmas have building the ice rink down to a science.

The idea for the ice rink began, Ken Thomasma said, when he observed that the school was neglected in comparison with its in-town counterparts. There was no gym and no storage space at the time.

“We had no facilities comparable to any other school in the county,” he said. “We had four swings. We had two toilet seats for 37 people.”

Longtime Kelly residents Donald and Gladys Kent donated half an acre to the school for the playground, freeing up a little space, and Ken Thomasma went to work digging up sagebrush. But there was still no gym, and the state’s school funding model didn’t yet distribute property taxes equally within a school district.

The family did countless things for the school, including lobbying to get a mill levy on the ballot in 1981 for an expansion that included a gym and a kitchen area, and building the ice rink.

“I think we were the right people to just happen along,” Thomasma said. “A mother, a father and a son. We all became a family with the rest of the school, and now you see the result. Now everything is the way it should be. The students out here should have the same opportunity as any other kid in this valley. Can anybody disagree with that?”

A kit, including a liner, was purchased roughly a decade ago and has helped the process of building the ice rink. Ken Thomasma used to pack down snow with his boots, his truck and, occasionally, his grandson in a plastic sled. He estimated spending more than 30 hours a week prepping the rink to make sure it wouldn’t leak.

“He’d be out here with a garden hose, sprinkling and stomping the snow with his boots,” Dan Thomasma recalled of his father’s early efforts. “He’d literally spend hours out here every morning and every evening. It took a whole lot of hard work.”

Each skating season begins and ends with community. The Thomasmas gather parent volunteers to the school before the ground freezes, usually around Halloween, to help lay boards every 4 feet and bracket them into the soil before it gets too cold.

The rink’s foundation ends up being about 70 by 70 feet. Then it’s the students’ turn to help, laying out the one-piece liner.

“The kids roll it out,” Dan Thomasma said. “We couldn’t do it without them. We need all these hands.”

Their involvement is crucial for other reasons, too, his father said.

“It gives them ownership of the rink,” Ken Thomasma said.

Pool noodles clamp the liner to the boards on the edge. Then it’s time for the preliminary sheet of ice, usually about 2 or 3 inches deep.

“All night we let the water run,” Dan Thomasma said.

Then the father and son fine-tune the rink all winter, trying to get ice bubbles out and solidifying the layers into one smooth mass of ice.

The younger Thomasma tends to be the one on the ice. It’s slippery.

“I’d have to use mountain climbing ice axes if I went out on there,” Ken Thomasma said.

WITNESSING GROWTH

The ice rink pays off for Ken and Dan Thomasma, who say they love watching students become more fluid on the ice over the winters.

Younger students often start learning how to skate by taking slow, halting glides while scooting behind a desk chair on the ice. Often the older kids give the younger ones a hand tying their skates.

“It’s really pretty cool seeing them help each other,” Dan Thomasma said. “They learn that way, too.”

Owning ice skates - and the required helmet - isn’t a prerequisite for Kelly students. Many of the skates were donated or found at Browse N’ Buy in years past.

“It’s a life skill unless you move to Florida,” Dan Thomasma said, laughing and gesturing at the Tetons rising up north of the playground. “There may be ice rinks all over the country, but not too many ice rinks have that view.”

The land where Kelly Elementary School is situated is special, his father agreed.

“Why would you ever close a school that borders on a national park, a national forest and the National Elk Refuge?” Ken Thomasma asked. “It’s one of a kind in the United States of America, what you see right here.”

When Dan Thomasma comes back to help maintain the ice rink with his father he enjoys connecting with students from his days in the elementary school.

“I still have my mailbox out here,” Dan Thomasma said. “It gives me a good excuse to get out here.”

He said the ice rink is a good way of staying involved in the Kelly School community.

“It’s really neat seeing these kids I knew before I retired,” he said, gesturing to show how they’ve grown up since. “They were just starting out. Now look at them skate.”

The next Thomasma generation will attend the school one day, Ken Thomasma hope. His and Bobbi’s first great-granddaughter, Hazel Noel, is 13 months old. In a few years she will benefit from the hard work her family has put into making the school what it is today.

“It was worth every bit of it,” Ken Thomasma said. “Where could you think of such an opportunity to improve the lives of so many children with just your energy and your time? We’re making a difference here, a visible one.”

___

Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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