Couple's dream school purchase led to ghosts, bankruptcy.
By KEITH BIERYGOLICK The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI (AP) — Darrell Whisman is sitting in a chair by his living room window. His shirt is unbuttoned, and he is smoking a small chocolate-flavored cigar. He looks outside at an empty playground.
Like many people, the Whismans’ living room has a computer, flat-screen TV and couch. There are family pictures on the wall and, on this day, the television is paused on a game of “Fortnite.”
Unlike many others, their entertainment stand is so big the grandkids can climb inside it when they play hide and seek. This towering piece of furniture wouldn’t fit inside a normal home, but this isn’t a normal home.
This is a home with a chalkboard stretching from one end of the room to the other.
This is a home with a swinging saloon door that leads into a hallway, where copper pipes heat a hot water contraption as loud as it is large.
This is a home where drywall behind the television hides a set of metal lockers.
Darrell’s wife, Brenda, sits across from him. She is quick to smile and even quicker to share a ghost story. That’s because their living room is part of an old school rumored to be haunted.
But this isn’t a home you’ll see on HGTV. This is more of a cautionary tale, a story about how failed dreams and hard times can come for anyone.
Brenda smiles through the ghost talk, laughing about a time her grandson was scared to chase down a basketball by himself. But it’s harder to smile when explaining what happened after she and Darrell bought Poasttown Elementary School in 2004 for $189,000.
The chalkboard is a hint. At first glance, it looks like a wonderfully nostalgic touch — a way to remember the school where Darrell and Brenda met decades ago when Darrell’s hair fell halfway down his back.
A closer inspection reveals the drawing of a thermometer-like fundraising chart. Only the very bottom is colored in.
The Whismans have never been rich, but they weren’t poor either. Like a lot of us, they were somewhere in between. A place where one mistake can become a nightmare.
Darrell is 61. He used to work in excavating and waterproofing, where he was his own boss.
Before he and his wife moved into the former Madison Township school in Ohio’s Butler County, they had a savings account. Darrell says this with a smile, even if now it’s just a reminder of what they’ve lost.
It seemed like a great idea. They wanted to turn this creepy school into a haunted house, a small business and a big attraction. And they did.
But the building wasn’t up to code. Not even close. It needed new sprinklers, fire alarms, communication systems and exit markings.
This would have cost the family thousands of dollars — thousands they didn’t have.
That’s because living in a school isn’t like living in a normal home. The Whismans found this out when they received their first heating bill.
It was $33,000.
That’s when they stopped running the boiler, and that’s when the pipes started freezing. To supplement their income, the family hosted yard sales seven days a week.
But they could never replenish the savings they worked so hard for, and the electric was shut off because they couldn’t pay their bills. They lived off a generator for months.
Darrell remembers coming home from a hard day at work only to spend the rest of the night painting hallways, fixing windows and trying to turn the school into a home. He remembers doing all of this and then wanting to take his wife to dinner. They couldn’t afford it.
The Whismans filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
Now, most of the rooms in the vast school sit unused. Some on the second floor have buckets in them, collecting water that leaks through the ceiling. And there are still holes in the wall from where Darrell thought the pipes were frozen but guessed the wrong spot.
In October, Darrell had multiple hernia surgeries. He can no longer work and worries about other operations doctors have suggested. Darrell and his wife now live off a $750 monthly disability check.
Instead of yard sales, Darrell and Brenda now make extra money another way. Because the rumor persists the school is haunted, something about a train crash many years ago, people pay to stay there overnight and set up equipment to capture supernatural activity.
And because of what ghost hunters have documented, Darrell has appeared on several national television shows.
In 2016, a local TV station did a Halloween special at the school. Darrell said a producer told him the segment reached more than 1 million people. He still has the Facebook message and laughs as he pulls it up on his phone.
But his laugh is weary, and it’s followed by a puff from his cigar.
“If I can figure out a way to make money off that, I’ll be set,” he says.
December was the worst month they’ve ever had. Only one paranormal group stayed there.
Darrell and Brenda still live at the school — and would like to for the rest of their lives — but they no longer own the property.
It was sold at a sheriff’s sale last year because of unpaid taxes. Now, they make monthly payments to the owner with no guarantee they will ever regain ownership.
By the time this comes up, Brenda has left the room. Although she is still smiling.
Her daughter has to finish painting her nails, she says. In a few hours, the Whismans are hosting a birthday party for their grandson.
And they’ll do it in the biggest house around.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com