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Jonas Ekblom

Swedish journalist with breaking newsroom experience and prize-awarded photography. Currently reporter at Reuters in Brussels, previously Washington D.C.

Recepient of the 2019 Overseas Press Club Scholar Award and Reuters Fellow. Top-of-class MS (Honors) graduate from Columbia Journalism School.

Previously at Swedish Public Radio (Sveriges Radio) and other outlets.

In an American Small Town, Tragedy Strikes

In an American Small Town, Tragedy Strikes

Ed and Iwonne Schardein keep their only son’s ashes in an urn next to their TV set. In their sparsely decorated living room, the immense flat screen TV dwarfs everything else. “To this day I still expect him to walk through the door,” says Iwonne. Pictures of Casey hang on all four walls, his jovial smile framed by a scraggly beard and a baseball cap. The young man from Hope, Kansas, had just turned 26 when he died.

Six miles west of the Schardein house stands a small, red, two-story farmhouse. Four dogs run around in its muddy driveway, barking at every intruder. Recently widowed Katelyn Hicks sits in the living room with Gentry, her three-year-old daughter. “She knows her daddy is an angel,” Katelyn said, tightly embracing a pillow with both her arms. Under it, her belly is growing. Three days after a car crash killed her husband, Lucas Hicks, and Casey Schardein last summer, Katelyn found out she was pregnant with their second child.

Everywhere are pictures of her husband and Gentry’s father, sporting kind eyes, round, red, cheeks and a thick beard. Katelyn and Lucas, who was 28 when he died, had been together for almost 12 years.  

Both Casey and Lucas grew up and lived in and around Hope, two of the few determined to remain in one of the many struggling rural towns across America. They died when the golf cart they were driving at night was hit head on and totaled by a friend driving a pickup truck. Their deaths brought a tiny town of some 340 inhabitants even closer together. Yet the town itself is teetering on the brink of extinction; it could barely afford to lose two promising young men who chose to stay and to help it survive.

Photos of Casey Schardein, who died in a car accident on August 18, 2018, hang in the living room of his parents, Ed and Iwonne Schardein of Herington, Kansas, on January 15, 2019.

Photos of Casey Schardein, who died in a car accident on August 18, 2018, hang in the living room of his parents, Ed and Iwonne Schardein of Herington, Kansas, on January 15, 2019.

Life is improving in every part of America, except its rural areas. Almost one million rural Americans are less well off today than ten years ago, and they are twice as likely to find themselves lower on the socioeconomic ladder than urban Americans, according to the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), a think tank. The number of Americans living in what EIG calls “distressed” zip codes has decreased everywhere but in rural areas. Rural Americans even die younger, either from disease or their own volition: small towns and rural communities have by far the highest suicide rates in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Nearly every single statistic shows that overall, rural America is in stagnation or decline due to fewer economic and social opportunities and a shrinking population. The Census Bureau shows that the level of Americans living in rural areas and small towns has stayed the same – around 50 million people – while population levels in every other type of area – suburbs or large, medium and small cities – have skyrocketed.

Since 2007, rural areas have had a population growth of a measly 0.4 percent, while urban areas have enjoyed increases as high as ten percent. Hope, Kansas, has actually lost almost ten percent of its population in the last seven years. At the time of the 2010 Census, 368 people lived in Hope. Casey and Lucas saw a future in Hope that others did not.

Incorporated in 1886, the small town lies in southern Dickinson County, a small county in central Kansas along Interstate 70 on the Great Plains. The county’s biggest city is Abilene with a population of 6,000, famous for being the hometown of President Dwight. D. Eisenhower. Hope lies at the junction of two railroads, but neither serves the town. A single traffic light, just like the one that keeps blinking in the small town of Twin Peaks in every episode of the eponymous TV series, marks the place where Main Street and 2nd Avenue intersect. Pickup trucks with the keys still in are parked outside the town’s bank and tiny post office – still open, but with very limited hours.

The population in rural towns is also increasingly senior; roughly two thirds of Hope’s population is 60 or older. And while rural areas have had higher numbers of deaths per 1,000 births than urban areas for decades, this ratio has grown even grimmer. In 2016, rural areas had almost 1,000 deaths per 1,000 births, meaning that rural populations will soon start to decrease, as no newborns will replace the ones dying off.

Hope’s 67-year-old mayor, Larry Ryff, has seen this change first-hand. “It’s been a gradual decline since the 1960s,” he said while sitting in the town’s one-room City Hall, located on the quiet Main Street. Hope used to have two grocery stores and a range of other mom-and-pop shops. The last grocery store closed almost 20 years ago after competition from larger stores in nearby cities. There even used to be a full time barber, a pool hall and a furniture store, Ryff recalled.

“We’re a bedroom community for larger ones,” he readily admitted. Citizens of Hope drive to the neighboring larger communities of Junction City, Salina and Abilene. The few employers still around are the tiny school, the local bank and Agri Trails Co-op, a farm services company that has 13 locations and conducts its business from the main office in Hope. Agri Trails runs grain elevators that farmers use to store their grains and supplies fuel and fertilizer to farmers.

Both Ryff and City Clerk Joni Richard think there is currently very little outside of family to keep young people in a place like Hope.

“Eventually, over time, Hope will be like Navarre and Woodbine,” Ryff said, referring to two neighboring, even smaller, towns that have clung to existence for many years. The Navarre Post Office closed in 1971.

Larry Ryff, Hope Mayor, and City Clerk Joni Rickard outside of Hope’s small city hall on January 15, 2019.

Larry Ryff, Hope Mayor, and City Clerk Joni Rickard outside of Hope’s small city hall on January 15, 2019.

‘The Co-op’, as Agri Trails is commonly known as, employs around 25 people in their Hope offices. Lucas Hicks was one, Casey Schardein worked at the Co-op’s location in Navarre. Casey’s supervisor, Gene Kickhaefer, the cocksure branch manager at Navarre, said that Casey was obsessed with getting a job there. “He was hounding Darel: ‘Can I get a job?’, ‘Can I get a job?’” he said, referring to the Co-op’s general manager and chief executive, Darel Anderson.

He finally scored a job: running the mill at one of the Co-op’s grain elevators in Navarre – heavy work helping farmers coming in with trucks full of grain to mill into feed or flour. Lucas mainly drove trucks for the Co-op out of Hope, where Darel Anderson was manager.

The mild-mannered Anderson has a large office with brown walls, his dark brown desk covered with paperwork from the 13 branches of the Co-op. A DTN terminal – a kind of farmer’s computer with specialized weather and market info – stands next to his normal computer. He wears a yellow shirt with the Agri Trails logo on it: an outline of Kansas, crossed with green trails and two heads of wheat.

He explains that Lucas first started working during the summers for the Co-op before joining the business full time. His face lit up when talking about Lucas at work. “Lucas was the practical joker,” he says and smiles. “Whenever someone does something crazy now, we say, ‘Lucas is laughing.’”

Both Lucas and Casey were committed to staying in Hope, and neither wanted any other life. Many in Hope believe that most of its young people would stay – if they could find work.

“I think that the majority of the folks here, they want to stay, but with the limited employment opportunities, it’s hard,” said Dillion Cook, one of Lucas’ friends and pallbearers. Dillon moved back last October after several years away in large cities like Fort Worth, Texas and Spokane, Washington. Dillion, who works at the local bank and grew up in a farming family, said that “unless you go home to work on your farm, it’s hard.”

Dillon Cook, one of Lucas Hicks’ friends and pallbearer at the funeral, sits in his office at the First National Bank of Hope, Kansas.

Dillon Cook, one of Lucas Hicks’ friends and pallbearer at the funeral, sits in his office at the First National Bank of Hope, Kansas.

These feelings are far from uncommon. Jessica Ulrich-Schad, an assistant professor in sociology and rural studies at South Dakota State University, has studied rural identity and culture for several years. She has heard similar statements many times in her research.

“There’s a lot of forces at play,” she said, making it hard for young people to stay even if they want to. She pointed to a lack of employment opportunities, but also a lack of services and amenities that provide quality-of-life as reasons for leaving.

Identity also plays an important factor in whether to stay. Rural areas, Ulrich-Schad said, have a particular identity that is “often very intertwined with work and the work of the place.” In many places across the Great Plains, this is agriculture; in Appalachia, it is tied to coal mining. In others, it has been textiles or steel.

When an industry that has for long provided the backbone in a small community disappears or changes its face dramatically, as has happened with farming in recent decades, places like Hope will struggle. If a place’s whole identity is built around something that doesn’t exist anymore, what happens?

Farming has always defined Hope. On prom night, couples still show up in tuxes and prom dresses riding John Deere tractors and combine harvesters. The most prominent buildings in small midwestern towns like Hope are the grain elevators, like the ones where Casey and Lucas worked: immense concrete silos that tower a hundred feet above the flat farmland. But the face of farming has been changing dramatically for some time, becoming increasingly mechanized and employing far fewer people today than it did before.

“You can’t get on farming 80 acres – not even 800. Farming has become big business,” Mayor Ryff said, a farmer himself. Larger and larger swaths of land are worked by fewer and fewer people.

More than 50 years ago, one quarter of a square-mile ‘section’ could be enough to sustain a whole family in Hope with food and employment. Today, single large farms might work 10-square-mile sections or more, yet employ only a handful of people, mainly growing feed for cattle farms in the form of soybeans, corn or milo, a kind of sorghum grass.

Nationwide, the number of people who work in farming is dropping. In 1950, almost 10 million Americans worked in agriculture and related industries; by 2000, that number had dropped to 3.2 million and in 2017 the number of agricultural workers was down to 2.6 million, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Department of Agriculture.

Furthermore, modern tractors and other farm machinery have for years been GPS guided and grown increasingly automated and expensive. A new tractor can cost upwards of $400,000, a significant investment, often prohibitively expensive for younger people who want to become farmers.

“It’s got to be passed down,” Gene Kickhaefer, Casey’s former supervisor of the Co-op in Navarre, says. “If you’re not a large scale farmer it’s nearly impossible.” The face of farming also reflects the aging rural population: the average age of the owner of a farming operation is just below 60 years, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Gene Kickhaefer, branch manager at the Agri Trails Co-op in Navarre, Kansas, talking to Jordan Gott in his office on January 16, 2019. He explained it his hard to find dedicated workers like Casey Schardein that are willing to stay on.

Gene Kickhaefer, branch manager at the Agri Trails Co-op in Navarre, Kansas, talking to Jordan Gott in his office on January 16, 2019. He explained it his hard to find dedicated workers like Casey Schardein that are willing to stay on.

Farm equipment producers like New Holland and John Deere already tout prototypes of driverless tractors and harvesters. Bigger farms will become even bigger, as will the businesses supporting them, Kickhaefer thinks. “I see robots in the near future,” he said, sitting by his computer, which like his entire office, is coated with a thin layer of dust from the grain the Co-op handles. An employee working next door greets farmers delivering crops, taking samples of the delivered grains and analyzing the quality.

Today, farming is no different from trading stocks: Global markets decide prices on grains that fluctuate every second. Soybean prices have been hit particularly hard, losing a third of their value in a couple of years, farmers complain. Any trade dispute, such as the ones triggered by President Trump, isn’t popular here, as farming is a very export-dependent industry. Becoming bigger has become the only way to sustain financial losses when global markets fluctuate widely and margins becomes smaller and smaller.

“Those days are over,” Kickhaefer said when asked about small-scale farming. His own employer used to have only four locations, but a merger of several smaller Co-ops created the Agri Trails Co-op and its current 13 locations.

Darel Anderson at the Hope Co-op echoed Kickhaefer’s comments: “Small-town communities are struggling more than we’ve ever seen before.”

He, like many older people in the area, sees the same pattern: small communities stuck in a death spiral of fewer job opportunities that drains away younger people. They leave in pursuit of well-paying jobs and fulfilling leisure activities. Places like Hope lose their critical mass of young people who leave and never come back. “There’s nothing to come home to,” Anderson says.

The town’s motto, “There will always be Hope in Kansas” is etched into two large limestone slabs sponsored by the local Lion’s Club welcoming visitors to the town. But the town itself is enveloped in a sense of powerlessness, the belief that nothing can be done to stop the steady decline, yet struggling to live up to the promise of its motto.

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Social and financial inequalities are both factors that have proven to entrench feelings of powerlessness. Its effects are some of Ulrich-Schad’s main research areas at South Dakota State University. She said that inequality greatly influences outlooks and behaviors. The median income in Hope, like most small rural towns, is significantly lower than urban metropolitan ones. Fewer jobs, lower wages, an uncertain future. All erode a town’s identity and the result is a feeling of despair and hopelessness – a feeling of powerlessness, that nothing can be done about a community’s downward decline.

Darel Anderson has called Hope home his whole life, and he explained when he was young there was always something going on and its streets were alive. “Today, I could drive down Main Street 100 miles per hour and no one would notice.” Anderson has become a leader in the community, spearheading efforts to renovating the town’s public park and putting in new restrooms there.

Lucas and Casey enjoyed what is often the main pastime in many parts of rural America: hanging out and drinking beer. Lucas, who always loved a bonfire, often invited friends and family to sit around the fire drinking and talking long into the night. On the porch of the house he shared with Katelyn, a sign leans against the wall: “What happens at the campfire, stays at the campfire.”

Loading a case of beer in the back of a pickup truck and driving around back roads is familiar to anyone in places like Hope; It’s a staple of modern country songs that often refer to driving down dirt roads, country girls in skin-tight jeans, beer and bonfires.

One of Casey’s closest friends, Rachel Barnes, remembers all the “booze-cruises” they did – just grabbing that case of beer and driving around. Beer and socializing are tightly intertwined, and the two young men were doing nothing different on the night they died.

They were both attending a friend’s bachelor party that had been going on for the better part of that Saturday, August 18; a warm day at the tail-end of a dry summer. Katelyn had spent the morning in Salina, 40 minutes away, and her husband had been home mowing the lawn. “He mowed the lawn two-three times that day – he was real anal about that,” she said, explaining that he hated any lines in the grass.

Katelyn Hicks with her and Lucas’ daughter, Gentry, in the living room of their house outside of Hope, Kansas, on January 17, 2019.

Katelyn Hicks with her and Lucas’ daughter, Gentry, in the living room of their house outside of Hope, Kansas, on January 17, 2019.

“We were going to take Gentry to her first movie, but there wasn’t anything good on,” Katelyn recalled. “Then Lucas remembered the bachelor party.”

Casey had already been at the party, which had started with a round of golf at a nearby course, and Lucas called him up. At around 3 p.m. Casey came by and picked up his friend. They came back after an hour to eat dinner and left again around 6 p.m., heading off in the golf cart.

“Last thing he said to Gentry was, ‘Give your mom a hug and kiss from me!’” Katelyn remembered.

The two men left the Hicks house in the golf cart loaded with beer, and Katelyn spent the rest of the night watching TV. The last time she was in contact with her husband was at 9.21 p.m., when she asked him in a text “not to come home stupid drunk.”

She and Lucas had been together since high school. “He asked me to homecoming. I remembered he called but I couldn’t recognize his voice. I went upstairs and told my sister ‘I think Lucas Hicks asked me to homecoming.’”

A small smile spread across her face as she retold the story. Her sister, Taylor Haws, who sat next to her on the living room couch, also smiled and reminded Katelyn that they later found out that the call didn’t come easy for her future husband. “They didn’t have cell service at his parents’ place back then, so he had to drive up to the school parking lot to call,” Katelyn said.

Their daughter, Gentry, ran around the living room as Katelyn talked. She asked her mom if she could wear the belt she got for Christmas and Katelyn said yes. Gentry scurried off and got the belt: jewel-studded with matching cowboy boots. “She looks like me but acts like him,” her mother explained.

Katelyn smiled when she recounted how Lucas had become very invested in Christmas lights after Gentry was born, wanting to make sure that his daughter was going to have Christmases to remember. “Before, he was a Grinch; then he went all Clark Griswold,” she said, referring to the hyper protagonist in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

The last Christmas he was alive, Lucas decked out their farm so brightly they placed second in the Christmas light competition in Hope. This past Christmas, whenever Gentry and her mom passed a house with Christmas lights on it, she would blurt out, “Daddy did that!”

The young couple were both from Hope and decide they did not want to live anywhere else. After Katelyn graduated from Kansas Wesleyan University with a nursing degree, they moved away to another small Kansas town, but returned after only a couple of months; they missed Hope, their friends and their families. “We have so many friends that just stuck around,” Katelyn said.

He worked at the Co-op and she as a nurse at Fort Riley, an Army base a 45 minute-drive away. Three years ago, Gentry was born. “He became the biggest softie,” Katelyn said and recalled that Lucas often would break down into tears after the birth of his daughter.

A bookshelf in the living room is full of memorabilia, one frame containing old notes that Katelyn and Lucas used to pass to each other in high school: “Love you ever!,” “Good luck 2nite! I LOVE YOU,” “Hey babe, happy V-day it’s all you get JK LOL.” On the same bookshelf, a framed photo of the two after a football game.

Both Lucas and Casey played football at Hope High School. The school, despite its small size, was known to punch above its weight and became state champions in eight-man football in 2003, and became state runners-up when Lucas and Casey were on the team. The two remained good friends through high school and past it.

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In the living room at Ed and Iwonne Schardein’s house, several photos showcased Casey’s football prowess. Football was the main thing that motivated him in school, his mother explained. “When it wasn’t football season I got notes every week: ‘Casey’s on probation; Casey’s on probation; Casey’s on probation…!’” Iwonne said, exasperated, as her son knew a failing grade during football season would mean being cut from the team.

Ed and Iwonne both came from what they described as broken families. “My goal was always not to be my father,” said Ed. “I was never ever going to be like that to my child.” Iwonne, 57, came from a military family and Ed, 55, served in the Army, which he joined straight out of high school in 1982. By the time Casey was born in 1992, he was in the National Guard. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s he got out completely.

Casey was their only child, and the couple had struggled to get pregnant. “We just wanted a child,” said Iwonne. “I was praying for a boy,” said Ed, who laughed hard with a raspy laugh recalling the day his son was born. “Iwonne had a Caesarean. I was sitting next to her so I even heard the knife. It was like the doctor had done a magic trick – when he turned around Casey was there. It was like ‘ta-da!’ I’ve been a proud father ever since.” After a short sniff he turned quiet, staring out into the carpeted living room.

Ed broke into tears, many of them, when he explained that he saw so much of himself, and the person he wanted to be, in Casey. “The love, the compassion – for your friends, your family. Always striving to be a better person – and never growing up.” He cleared his throat. “It was just like watching me growing up. It’s really hard.” He paused. “I had it all planned out.”

The previous year and a half had been tough on Casey. He had lost two friends to suicide and one in another car accident. He rented a house, two-bedroom, one-bath, on the edge of Hope; $600, all utilities included.

Casey Schardein’s dog, which now lives with his former dad’s parents with three other dogs, keep Ed and Iwonne company in their Herington, Kansas, home.

Casey Schardein’s dog, which now lives with his former dad’s parents with three other dogs, keep Ed and Iwonne company in their Herington, Kansas, home.

Casey was another one of the young people who wanted to stay in Hope. After commuting an hour each way to the college town of Manhattan to work for a roofing company, he was beyond happy when he finally got a job at the local Co-op.

To his friends with children, Casey was known as “Uncle Casey” and always played with the kids. “It was because he was a big kid himself,” Chris Barnes, Rachel’s husband, said. Both of them take solace in the fact that he got to see their youngest daughter, Hallie, born a couple of months before Casey died.

Rachel explained how she told Chris that he had to accept Casey if he wanted to marry her; they were best friends since school. She fondly remember Casey standing by her side after she was ostracized by other classmates when she got pregnant in high school. He never judged her, she recalled.

Chris and Casey did grow close after Rachel was married, as they were all neighbors and he was over very often. “He just wandered between houses,” they said and laughed. “He was the ultimate bachelor: very incapable.”

After the accident, the couple decided to clean up Casey’s house because they didn’t want his mom to see the mess their friend had left behind. “I did dishes for an hour and a half,” Chris said and laughed.

Living with Casey was Rocko, a golden-colored brown mutt, who now stays with Casey’s parents. Rocko never liked to be alone for long periods, so on the day of the crash Casey had taken him to his parents before leaving for the bachelor party, shouting “Love you dad!” as he left in a hurry. Rocko has stayed with Ed and Iwonne ever since.

The bachelor party drew a big crowd, and in the evening Casey and Lucas called a friend, asking him to join. The friend, who had just come home from spending a week in Arizona with his parents for his father’s cancer treatment, said he would come over but didn’t know the way. Casey and Lucas decided to drive to meet him and headed off in the golf cart. That was the last the partygoers saw of the two.

The road where the vehicles crashed is no different from any other gravel road in the area: straight and with no trees to block the view from anywhere. The police accident report states that visibility was good. But as the two vehicles were meeting on the gravel road, the golf cart suddenly swerved in front of the pickup and they crashed. No one knows why they swerved.

Jordan Gott, Casey Schardein’s cousin and colleague at the crash site outside of Hope, Kansas, on January 18, 2019. He said that they had both become more careful with drunk driving as they grew older.

Jordan Gott, Casey Schardein’s cousin and colleague at the crash site outside of Hope, Kansas, on January 18, 2019. He said that they had both become more careful with drunk driving as they grew older.

The pickup totaled the golf cart, overturning it and ripping off the roof. Lucas was underneath. Casey was thrown off into a ditch. Their friend, who hadn’t been drinking that night and declined to be interviewed for this piece, called 911 and began to perform CPR on his friends. The time was 9.30 p.m.

He called other acquaintances at the party and waited for the ambulance and police to show up fifteen minutes later. The coroner, who arrived at 11.15 p.m., was Lucas’ own doctor, Mark Sheern. The August night was warm and quiet, and crickets sang in the tall grass.

It didn’t take long for word to reach other people that Casey and Lucas had been in an accident. Casey’s friend Rachel was just ready to go to bed when she got a text that there had been a crash – rumors flew around that someone had been airlifted to a nearby hospital in Herington, Kansas. She threw on some clothes and drove straight to the hospital but no one was there. When she called Casey’s phone he didn’t answer. It worried her, as Casey always picked up his phone.

Rachel then remembered that Casey’s parents were at a block party in Herington, so she decided to head there and found his mother. She asked her whether she knew where Casey was, and when Iwonne said no, they decided to go to the bachelor party.

As they were leaving, Rachel learned that Casey and Lucas both were dead. She did not tell Ed and Iwonne. “I didn’t have the heart,” she said about her decision. “No, no way – I couldn’t tell them.”

Casey’s parents and Rachel got in their cars and headed to the crash site. A policeman flagged them down and asked who they were. “Mom first asked if everyone was okay,” Rachel said, referring to Iwonne, who then immediately found out about the fate of her son. “Mom let out a scream – I’ll never forget that. Ed put his hands on my Jeep, all quiet.”

Ed Schardein chokes when he remembers that evening, standing by the police’s “Do not cross” tape, seeing the totaled golf cart a less than a hundred yards away in the distance. Sitting in his living room, he lights up another cigarette – Orange Eagle 20s – and slowly, slowly inhales it. Just as slowly he exhales a small cloud of smoke. He is quiet for a long time. “My heart stopped. My life stopped. It was like the ground was yanked from under you.”

Katelyn Hicks was watching TV at the time of the accident. At 9.45 p.m. she heard sirens in the distance but thought it came from the TV show she was watching. It wasn’t until 10.20 p.m., when her cousin came to her house, that she learned about the crash.

“I thought ‘What freaking accident can you be in a golf cart?’” Katelyn said and explained that she ran upstairs and changed clothes and drove to the crash site, only a mile away from her house.

The scene was lit up by lights from ambulances and police cars. As Katelyn pulled over by the police tape she saw a pickup in the field and the golf cart flipped over. She noticed someone sitting at the side of the road: the driver of the pickup, who was not only Casey and Lucas’ friend, but also worked alongside them at the Co-op.

A policeman gave Katelyn the news of her husband’s death. She doesn’t remember much else from that night. “I remember the first thing you told me that night: ‘This isn’t real, this can’t be real’,” her sister Taylor remembered Katelyn telling her.

The Hicks house, located on Quail Road just outside of Hope, quickly became a gathering spot for many of the partygoers. Charlie Hicks, Lucas’ father, who was there, remembers that the bachelor party broke up in a daze that night, and the participants just walked around. “A lot of them wandered around like the lost boys.”

“There’s got to have been at least 30 cars here that night,” Charlie recollected as he sipped from a can of beer, Natural Light. Lucas and he shared the same round cheeks. “No one was saying much of anything that night. The lack of conversation said as much as anything.”

The night was a warm and muggy, as Midwestern summers tend to be. When dawn broke the next morning it started raining and rained the entire day.

Main Street in Hope, Kansas, on January 15, 2019. Only a few businesses line the street, including the local bank, the Post Office, and an auto parts store.

Main Street in Hope, Kansas, on January 15, 2019. Only a few businesses line the street, including the local bank, the Post Office, and an auto parts store.

Both Lucas and Casey had friends and family who had died in car accidents. And just as the decline of Hope is seen as inevitable, so are deaths like Casey’s and Lucas’; the actions and driving that led up to the accident are seen as just part of the culture in rural areas like Hope. Often, as in the case of Lucas and Casey, alcohol is involved.

“We’re a culture that likes to drink beer and go down dirt roads,” Chris Barnes explained. “That’s what we do around here.”

“A lot of the car accidents around here are because they don’t have anything else to do,” Iwonne Schardein said of crashes like the one her son was involved in. “It’s a part of life,” said Ed Schardein, echoing the idea that accidents like this can’t be stopped. “I’d prefer the way he went – just a bunch of good ol’ boys having a good ol’ time.”

Casey’s cousin, Jordan Gott, said that “the only way to stop these things from happening is to make every single cellphone not work when driving and install breathalyzers in every single car.”

“People think it’s never going to happen to them,” Katelyn said.

Over at the Co-op: “The sad thing is, there will be more parents in this county who will go through the same thing next summer,” Gene Kickhaefer said.

A couple of blocks from Casey’s old bachelor pad in Hope is the house of Kelli Elliott, a recently retired school teacher who had been working at the school in Hope since 1985. She also thinks that drunk driving is a cultural thing, hard to break out of.

“It’s the good ‘good ol’ boy’ mentality,” she explained. “It’s just what ‘good ol’ boys’ do. They drink.”

She does, however, think that younger generations are much more careful than previous ones, something that statistics prove. Dickinson County, where Hope is situated, echoes national and international trends of less drinking in general among the younger generation, and less drunk driving as well. Fatal accidents – where young men like Casey and Lucas are overrepresented due to the fact that group often drives more recklessly – are also dropping.

According to statistics from the US Department of Transportation, the rate of fatal crashes in Kansas was 2 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled in 1987. The same number in 2017 was 1.3, or 359 deaths – more than one per day. Much lower than 1987, but lagging behind national average of 1.16 crashes per 100 million miles travelled by vehicles.

Darel Anderson, general manager at Agri Trails Coop in Hope, Kansas on January 15, 2019. He worked closely with Lucas Hicks and said that not a single day passes not thinking about the two young men that died in August last year.

Darel Anderson, general manager at Agri Trails Coop in Hope, Kansas on January 15, 2019. He worked closely with Lucas Hicks and said that not a single day passes not thinking about the two young men that died in August last year.

Fatal car accidents are not the only things wrenching lives from towns like Hope. Many aspects of life are considerably harder for rural Americans than for their urban counterparts.

A comparison between urban and rural populations published by the National Center for Health Statistics makes for a grim read: maternal death rates are almost twice as high in rural areas compared to suburbs of large metro areas; rates of diabetes are considerably higher; nowhere are suicide rates as high as in small towns like Hope and Herington.

But the single largest challenge facing rural America is economic stagnation as capital and investment is drawn to larger metropolitan areas. There are not only fewer businesses in rural areas; people and businesses in small towns also takes out less bank loans than the rest of the country. In rural areas, levels of borrowing are lower than the years following the 2008 recession, while all other areas of the nation have bounced back. Without new investment, new jobs are not created.

Rural economics is not a big field in academia and Mark Partridge, professor in rural-urban policy at Ohio State University, explained that he sometimes jokes that he’s “one of the top five rural economists in the country,” adding later that there are only five in total. This knowledge gap leads to many uncertainties about what exactly will happen when rural towns like Hope begin to sink.

“A place like Hope would really face a lot of challenges,” Partridge said. Lack of employment is a major one. The fact there is no local consumer base for businesses and the fact that the workforce isn’t always well-qualified makes it hard to attract new businesses.

He explained that towns that are struggling today have been struggling for many years already. Previously successful rural towns are whole cities today, having left the laggards behind, he said. “It’s a bit like a basketball league where the best teams are promoted up each year,” he said, explaining how the only ‘teams’ – towns – left behind are the ones struggling.

Partridge has seen communities like Hope end up in a downward economic cycle that is hard to break free from, as fewer and fewer services are offered. He said “there is a certain threshold” of the level of services and amenities that towns need to be above to stymie a downward decline.

Both Partridge and his colleague Ulrich-Schad at South Dakota State University pointed to the importance of a culture of entrepreneurship to create a small, local economy. They have both observed successful small towns where the common denominator is a thriving community of small businesses or a strong community leader who other can follow. “If there is someone in the community making it a better place – people notice,” Ulrich-Schad said. Partridge pointed to successful towns and counties he had seen where the spirit of entrepreneurship permeated the whole community.

They also both believe that the key in getting smaller towns like Hope to survive is need to attract young families like Lucas and Katelyn Hicks’. “Instead of attracting 20-year-olds, it’s rather the 30-year-olds with families they should attract,” Partridge said.

Ulrich-Schad agreed, but explained that the obstacles in doing this are often not only limited to work and services; lack of quality housing is also a common limiting factor. She has witnessed many communities that have had young families wanting to move in, only to turn towns down as there are no good homes available. The same is true in Hope, as several people, including the mayor, spoke of the lack of good housing.

The grain elevator in Navarre, part of Agri Trails Cooperative, where Casey Shardein worked in the grain mill (right), in January 2019.

The grain elevator in Navarre, part of Agri Trails Cooperative, where Casey Shardein worked in the grain mill (right), in January 2019.

Apart from the Co-op, the town’s 100-year old school plays a central role as a large employer. But it also struggles with the drain of young families searching opportunity elsewhere, both for themselves and for their kids.

Built in 1921, the three-story red-brick Hope school building houses 132 K-12 students, down from more than 210 in 2000. The graduating class of 2019 will be 11 students, and rumors of the school closing have been flying around for years, triggering some people to leave. “Once people start worrying and someone leaves, it spreads,” Mike Teeter, the school’s principal, said.

Hope is one of two K-12 schools in the the USD 481 school district. The other, similarly sized school, is located in White City, more than 25 miles away. After failing to find enough students to form individual sport teams, the district decided to combine the schools’ sports programs. As Hope and White City were rivals, the decision wasn’t popular. “It met a lot of resistance,” Teeter recalls.

The school continues to struggle with fewer students and the state of Kansas, suffering under a huge budget deficit, has for years decreased how much money the school receives per student, crunching budgets for schools like Hope even more. “It’s unfortunate,” the basketball coach-turned-principal said.

The larger school districts of neighboring Herington and Chapman both draw students from Hope, where they have better opportunities through bigger sports programs and options to take more college credit courses.

“We are going to have to make some tough decisions,” Teeter said, putting on a brave face for the school district. But the future for the Hope school, just as for the town, is bleak. “It will take more money.”

Former Hope teacher Kelli Elliott saw the budget crunches first-hand when working at the school. She said, with certainty in her voice, that the school probably will be closing soon. “They are just strategizing to keep it open,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to stop surviving. You have to be able to provide more for your students.”

Casey’s longtime friend Rachel Barnes and her husband Chris, whose eldest daughter Allison is currently enrolled at Hope, think that the school will be closing as well. “No one stays,” Rachel said, who works as a paraprofessional at the larger school in Herington. “She doesn’t have the social experience of interacting with other kinds of kids,” commenting on her daughter’s class of only seven students. “It’s sad, because I’d love to see her graduate from here.”

The same sadness was voiced by every person who commented on the future of Hope. The minister at the local Methodist Church, Tim Clevenger, has always lived in small towns and wants his four children to have the same experience. “I think a lot of people miss out on having a hometown – a small town,” he said. He commented on the beauty of small towns like Hope coming together in “times of struggle.”

Nowhere was this more evident than the days following August 18. The public outpouring for the Hicks and Schardein families was immense. A fundraiser raised almost $8,500 for Casey’s funeral costs. “It made us feel very loved. We didn’t know until then how many people he reached,” his father said. “We always worried if we raised our son right.” They learned that any worry was misplaced.

Hundreds of people showed up for the young men’s memorial services. Lucas had many friends who came around for his wife when he passed. “I always told him he was a ‘friend whore’,” Katelyn said about his late husband’s social life and laughed, but quickly became a bit more quiet and added soberly: “Now I’m so grateful for that.”

Three days after the accident Katelyn found out she was pregnant with the couple’s second child. She revealed the pregnancy during her husband’s funeral, to much shock. She is due in May and it is a boy. His middle name will be Lucas.

She explained that the pregnancy was a great comfort when things were hard – something to look forward to. She looks to the uncertain future with resolve, certain that she will stay in Hope no matter what: all her friends and family are there.

Katelyn glanced at the couple’s first, ornery child as she was playing with her aunt. “She’s probably taken it better than I have,” she said. “But that is probably the hardest part – that Gentry won’t remember all that much of her dad.”

For now, the memory of her dad – the one that her mom explained had the same dimples as her, hidden deep under the beard he had been sporting since middle school – is still fresh in the young, brown-haired girl’s mind. Her mom told the story of how one day she was sitting in the car with her aunt, driving down a country road outside of Hope. As a flock of birds suddenly took flight and flew over the field next to the road, Gentry pointed to the birds and said, happily: “Look! There’s Dad!”

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