Stolen painting of George Washington returned to Durant community

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DURANT, OK -- A well-known painting has reappeared in Durant after vanishing more than four decades ago.

Students who attended George Washington Elementary say the painting of the first U.S. President has been etched in their memories since childhood.

"He hung in the auditorium and always watched you," Ken Ervin said.

"He was always looking at us," James Simmons said.

The painting was stolen when the school closed. James Simmons says he was a teenager when he came across two boys trying to set it on fire and rescued it just in the knick of time.

"I immediately recognized it, walked over, stepped on it and I said 'you guys wouldn't mind if I had this would you?' I went to this grade school and I don't want to see it burned up," Simmons said.

Simmons took the painting home and kept it rolled up and stashed away for more than 40 years. He says he forgot about the portrait until recently.

"I was going through some things, because my health is not that good, a couple of weeks ago and ran across George and thought he needed to be in a better place," Simmons said.

That is when Simmons called his trusted friend Ken Ervin to take the painting some place safe.

"When I was told where this was at and I went and started unrolling it I immediately knew where it came from," Ervin said.

Ervin then took it to the Three Valley Museum where it hangs today. Curator Nancy Ferris says the painting is at least 70 years old, but says they are unsure of its exact origin. When asked how much the painting is worth Ferries replied...

"Oh I don't know. To the people who attended George Washington School, there's no price for that," Ferris said.

Simmons says thankfully he was in the right place at the right time to save the painting. Now the token of history can be appreciated by future generations.

"I think it was fate for George. Had I not been there he wouldn't be where he is today," Simmons said.

Simmons says he found the bravery to share his story after reading an article in Durant's newspaper. He says before he was too scared to explain how he got the painting in fear of being accused of stealing it.

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