Death of 'everyone's cowgirl' brings Bates County community together
Some around here liked to call her “Sticktight,” after those burlike seeds that stick to your clothes when you’re out in the country.
That’s how 12-year-old Kalee Chandler was atop her horse, Sarrley. She’d burrow in tight and stick to him, the two making it around the barrels so smoothly and swiftly that during rodeos, people would head into the arena to watch when they heard her name called as the next one up.
“She was given that gift from God to ride,” said Tracy Murray, who took on Kalee as a student of barrel racing when the girl was 7. “And she’d go so fast and furious. She wasn’t there to take second.”
After her run last Saturday night, in a barrel-racing event for a veterans charity, Kalee was on Sarrley when he appeared to have a heart attack. He slammed into the fence and rolled onto Kalee, pinning her underneath him. She died Monday in a Kansas City hospital.
In the days since, neighbors in her Bates County community — where her parents, Wade and Kacey Chandler, and grandparents all grew up — have struggled to know what to say or do for a family everyone’s known forever. In the absence of something better, they’ve donated items to be auctioned, signed up to take donations throughout the county Saturday and stuffed money into buckets, boots and hats.
Maybe some of the collected money can go toward medical expenses, they say. Or the family can do something in the girl’s name. Whatever they want.
“Raising money, there’s nothing else they can do,” said Sandy Johnston, her eyes filling with tears at the Mo-Kan Livestock Market, where she worked before and during a fundraiser auction Thursday morning. “It’s their way of showing the family …”
It’s pretty much been that way all week, where sometimes the words just don’t come. Not just for Johnston, but for so many.
All it takes is for someone to picture the blond, pint-size Kalee up on Sarrley. Or Kalee on the basketball court, where she always had to have the last shot, or fishing on a nice day, or on the flag football field, where one photo captured her running for a touchdown, a gaggle of boys unable to catch her.
Some also see her on Thursday nights after lessons with Murray, kicking off her shoes and challenging everyone to a race. Again, she wasn’t running for second.
“For those of you who didn’t know her, she was a true cowgirl,” auctioneer Jim Hertzog said Thursday morning, just before selling off the first item of many. “I mean, she didn’t sit around the house and play video games. … She was a goer.”
The town’s mayor asked that the flag be lowered for Kalee until after Friday’s funeral. Neighbors across Bates County have had their porch lights on for her, and T-shirts have been made. Rodeo associations across the country and in Canada have posted on social media that they plan to send donations in Kalee’s name.
The aim, also, was to do a small, local boot drive — a donation collection — on Saturday. Maybe at a few intersections in town. But so many people called DeAnna Hutton to help, the event kept expanding.
“I think we’ll have enough people to be at every intersection in the county,” Hutton said. “You’re seeing parents, you’re seeing rodeo people, just people who know how odd this is, reach out. I’ve rode horses my whole life, and stuff like this doesn’t happen.”
‘Such a good presence’
Before the auction, they lit candles.
On Wednesday night, hundreds — with some estimates putting it well over 1,000 people — flooded the Butler fairgrounds for a candlelight vigil. Some wore blue, Kalee’s favorite color. Kansas City Royals blue, to be exact. Others wore Chiefs red.
In the hour before the vigil, a few showed up early to help. They jumped up to hug neighbors as they arrived and shared stories of the young girl often seen at her daddy’s side, whether it was on a tractor, in the field or at a sale barn.
The middle child of three, Kalee sat atop her first horse when she was still in diapers. She started barrel racing before she started school. As a preteen, she was said to back up a trailer better than her daddy. She would get out in the field and wrangle steers alongside grown men.
“She was small but mighty,” said Tracey Rapp, who went through school in Butler with Kalee’s parents and had known the girl since she was a baby. “Always a smile on her face and not afraid of anything.
“She absolutely loved being on her horse out on the farm.”
Jeff Taylor, another family friend, agreed: “That horse was her best friend, without a doubt.”
Hutton remembers seeing Kalee up there as a tiny girl and telling Wade Chandler, “You’re never going to get her off a horse.”
And that’s the way it was, Hutton said.
“She had a love for it you really don’t see anymore,” she said. “She would have gone somewhere with it.”
Maybe that’s why so many people struggle now. Her future was so bright.
As candles glowed and “Amazing Grace” filled the arena, Morgan Bradley, 17, looked at the ground.
“She’s having a tough time,” said her father, Edward Bradley. “It’s hitting her hard.”
Morgan shook her head, unable to talk about the girl who lived near them and whom she’d see riding a horse or motorbike. The two often were at Murray’s place on Thursday nights, learning about horses and riding.
It wasn’t until later in the evening that Morgan was ready to talk about her friend.
“She’d smoke all of us, easily, on horse or foot,” Morgan said, referring to those nights at Murray’s. “If we were dilly-dallying, she’d sure tell you, ‘Focus and get back on task.’
“She was such a good presence.”
Other young people stayed close to friends Wednesday night, keeping their candles lit and signing poster boards for the family to read later.
Kalee’s older sister, Allie, stood in a group of young people and neighbors she’d known her whole life.
People in cowboy hats and boots mixed freely with the sports types in their Royals, Chiefs or Butler Bears shirts, Kalee’s two worlds converging.
“It’s amazing when one small child can bring so many people together,” Rapp said. “She meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Later, after the prayer and songs, Murray, a former circuit finalist with the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, stepped up to the microphone inside the arena where she would so often cheer on her girl.
She challenged all the young people to do what Kalee would so often do at her house after lessons. Kick off your shoes. Kalee would want to race.
Initially, kids hesitated. Then a small group did take off their shoes and line up.
There in the arena where Kalee had competed so many times, kids raced for her.
Prayers for Kalee
Hertzog started the bidding for a bridle. Ten dollars here, five over there. The price kept rising.
The final bid: $75.
“Sell it again,” the winning bidder hollered.
That happened several times during the hourlong auction fundraiser. Farmers and ranchers would buy an item and then throw it back to raise another chunk of money for the family.
Bidders didn’t see Wade Chandler, with son Jake and eventually daughter Allie, quietly come in and stand in the back. The family watched as neighbors raised hands or shook fingers to offer their bids.
Donations came in from Lee’s Summit and Lowry City, even Garden City, Kan. And as the auction continued, more donations written on pieces of paper were brought up to Hertzog.
Forty minutes in, Chandler stepped to the microphone. He told the crowd of his middle child and how she loved to be inside sale barns. She’d keep her tablet with her, jotting down numbers for him.
In the days since she died, it’s been a “minute-by-minute deal” for the family, he said. And he wanted to stop in Thursday morning just to say how much all the support has meant.
“We think the world of everyone here,” he said. “I just wanted everybody to know we appreciate everything you’ve done for us. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
A few in the crowd wiped away tears. Others bowed their heads.
In the end, after a little more than an hour, the auction of donated items brought in $25,319.
“That’s about all we can do, other than our prayers,” Hertzog said.
All for “everyone’s little cowgirl.”