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Good ole boy makes good in Southeast Oklahoma

Thursday, May 16, 2024

POTEAU, Okla. -- “I was a deaf kid from Southeast Oklahoma,” said James Lockhart who lives between Wister and Heavener. “My momma was a nurse, and my daddy drove a train. Nobody (in my family) had ever been to a university.”

At age four, Lockhart was diagnosed with chronic otitis media resulting in chronic ear infections and a tympanic membrane perforation. He had five surgeries, including a complete left middle-ear reconstruction by age six.

School sometimes was a struggle. Sports, when he tried, often made him dizzy.

“Roping was good for me,” Lockhart explained, leaning back and smiling. “As a hard of hearing person, I can tune out all the background noise and really concentrate, which helps when the music and noise is through the roof at a rodeo.

As an adult, Lockhart applied powers of concentration and problem-solving skills to  succeed as a state representative, nursing home administrator, nuisance wildlife trapper, horse shoer, freelance writer and public-school teacher. Sometimes he did several of those jobs at the same time.

Today, he is the special education teacher for 35 students from kindergarten through 12th grade at Red Oak Public Schools, a school bus driver and a freelance writer.

After graduation from Heavener High School in 1992, Lockhart’s hearing loss qualified him for career counseling and financial help with tuition, fees and mileage assistance from Vocational Rehabilitation, an employment program for people with disabilities in Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services.

When asked about his progressive success in a wide range of careers, Lockhart said, “None of that would have been possible if I hadn’t gone to school and Vocational Rehabilitation hadn’t helped me.”

He scored high on military entrance exams and was recruited by all military branches. His top choice was a NAVY career, but he was disqualified due to his disability.

Lockhart completed a pre-medical associate degree at Carl Albert State College in Poteau but struggled in the veterinary medicine program at Oklahoma State University. He found it difficult to hear and process lectures delivered in large classrooms.

“VR paid my tuition when I went to OSU,” Lockhart said. “If it wasn’t for that and knowing that bill was going to be paid, I don’t what I would have done.”

Lockhart now regrets dropping out of OSU in his senior year. He accepted a job in Nowata trapping nuisance wildlife for Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.  He married Carrie Kee from Stroud in 1999 and needed the paycheck and health insurance that came with the full-time job. He worked there six years and was named state employee of the year twice.

Lockhart later completed a bachelor’s of science degree in business through the University of Phoenix and found that online classes were an advantage.

“I could turn the volume up on a recorded lecture and rewind it several times if I had a hard time understanding the professor,” he said. “My grades improved from 2.4 to 3.7 (grade point average).”

At age 36, Lockhart moved back to Southeast Oklahoma and  threw his hat in the ring for state representative in District 3. He won and served from 2010-2016, working hard to give a voice to the people in his district and protect critical water rights. He decided not to run for re-election.

“I told a lot of people, especially at the Legislature, ‘You can view things one way, but I see things totally different,” Lockhart said. “I think that’s from being hard of hearing. I have a different world view.”

At the end of his term in the Oklahoma legislature, Lockhart attended long-term care administration classes and worked without pay at a facility in Arkoma on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to learn the business. 

“When that place sold, I stepped right in a couple months before my (legislative) term ended, but we were already out of session,” Lockhart explained.

For two years, he was a long-term care administrator at facilities in Arkoma, Heavener and Poteau until he was contacted about an opportunity teaching English.

“When you’re a nursing home administrator, your phone rings all the time seven days a week,” Lockhart said. “A nursing home never closes. I decided to teach.”

The drive was 64 miles from home to Lockhart’s first job teaching English in Battiest. Later, he taught special education at Arkoma Public Schools, which reduced the commute to 33 miles.

Lockhart’s current jobs are special education teacher and bus driver at Red Oak Public Schools as well as freelance writer. His commute is 31 miles from his home, allowing him to spend more family time on their farm with his wife Carrie and children, Hope and Jakob.

“It’s a 12-hour day,” he said. “I set my alarm at 5:00 a.m. and get to school about 6:00 a.m. to put the coffee on and start all the buses.”

He uses a 30-minute break to write freelance stories on his phone for agriculture-oriented newspapers, newsletters and magazines, including Western Horseman and Rodeo Life.

“I write about rodeos, cowboys, hunting, fishing, life on the farm, but I don’t touch politics with a 12-foot pole,” he said.

In the special education classroom, Lockhart combines academic instruction with life skills training for students he clearly wants to become independent and successful.

“We need more hands-on learning for these special ed kids,” he said. “We’ll take 10 bucks and go to the local store, get a coke and a candy bar or a lunch item. I make them count to be sure they get the correct change.”

Looking down at a stack of papers waiting to be graded, Lockhart said, “Education – you can’t imagine the door it opens. I went from trapping beavers to the legislature to teaching special education to writing stories that have been published all around the world to teaching a class that I once took online to 309 students at Harvard University.”

 “If I have a message to take back (for other Vocational Rehabilitation clients), it’s you’re going to be a little bit scared,” Lockhart said. “You’re going to be told you’re not whole. Yeah, but that sets you apart from all the regular people, and there’s an advantage to that.”

“You have to put one foot in front of the other. After you take about two steps, it gets to be normal. You just have to be brave enough to take that first step.”

The Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services served 96,178 people through employment, education and independent living training programs as well as determination of medical eligibility for Social Security disability benefits in 2023.

DRS’ two employment divisions serving jobseekers with disabilities and employers with workforce vacancies.  Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired helps people with those disabilities and Vocational Rehabilitation serves those with all other disabilities that are barriers to employment. 


James Lockhart, who resides between Wister and Heavener, looks up from grading papers for the special education classes he teaches in Red Oak.

For more information

Jody Harlan, DRS Communications Director

Cell: 405-203-1318