A Tribute to Grace Russell

Story by Steve Nussbaum | Photos contributed by Melissa Russell

A red and black logo for the pk magazine.

Possum Kingdom is one of the most beautiful places in Texas, and the spirit of the community is helping one family heal after a tragic loss.

Last fall, 12-year-old Grace Russell was fatally injured in a one-car accident on Highway 16, just before the entrance to The Cliffs Resort. Her parents, John and Melissa Russell, have been part-time residents of the resort since 2018 and became full-time residents in 2021, and her grandmother, Linda Russell, is a full-time resident there.

John Russell is a 24-year veteran pilot for Southwest Airlines, and his wife has worked for the airline as a flight attendant for 25 years. Grace had been homeschooled since the fourth grade prior to her family moving to Texas from Florida, and Melissa Russell noted that her daughter loved being homeschooled so much that she told her mother that she never wanted to go back to traditional school.

Living at Possum Kingdom Lake allowed the Russells to maintain their successful careers while allowing their daughter to enjoy all the outdoor activities she loved. Grace loved spending time with her grandmother, who kept Grace when her parents were flying. It was a great arrangement for this busy family.

The Russells’ world changed forever not quite a year ago, though, on a drive home Oct. 12. It was a warm fall day, and Grace and her mom were returning home from extracurricular activities in Breckenridge.

As they approached the entrance to The Cliffs, Melissa Russell saw an aoudad sheep on the side of the highway. These wild animals have large, rounded horns and are found in several areas near the lake, but most commonly in The Cliffs and up in the hills by the Morris Sheppard Dam.

The sheep struck the car next to where Grace was riding, in the passenger-side back seat. Melissa Russell experienced no physical injuries, and their vehicle was not severely damaged, but the 12-year-old suffered severe head trauma from the collision.

In the aftermath of the wreck, Good Samaritans and local emergency crews helped clear an area on the highway, allowing space for a medical helicopter to land before transporting Grace to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth. Grace spent the next 21 days there, with her family and friends at her side, before passing away Nov. 2.

Grace’s interests differed from most 12-year-old girls in this day and age, and Melissa Russell described her daughter as an “old soul.†Grace had been designing her own costumes and clothes since she was 6, and she also had become quite adept at playing the kazoo.

Grace also loved living at the lake, and being out in nature was her special place. She had a patience and love for animals, even befriending and taming a feral cat that was destined to be euthanized. She eventually named it “Marshmallow.†Grace also participated in 4-H activities, and she loved attending the YMCA’s Camp Grady Spruce, with equestrian camp being her favorite week.  She also attended a sewing camp at Weatherford College.

Living at PK allowed Grace to pursue other interests, too, such as art, design, photography and cooking. She was always drawing, with her room full of art and pictures of sheep and rams that adorned the walls, and she frequently could be found with a book in her hands.

Grace expressed her faith in Christ through worship at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Graford and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Mineral Wells, and her mother said Grace would chastise the adults in the family if they tried to skip church.

One of Grace’s favorite reading topics was learning about saints, because she was fascinated with the various saints and why they were noteworthy. Her favorite was Saint Bernadette, the patron saint of Lourdes, France, and Melissa Russell said Saint Bernadette was her daughter’s patron saint.

The Russell family is coping with the loss of Grace by using her inspiration and faith to keep going. Melissa Russell described the accident as a tragedy for the entire family, but she added that “Grace’s life was truly a love story,†even though there will always be a hole left by Grace’s death.

For Melissa Russell, the 12 years she got to spend with her daughter were the best years of her life, and Grace’s life brought tremendous joy to their family.

Since the accident, John Russell has returned to flying for Southwest, and he is restoring an old plane with their adult son, John Russell Jr., who finished his year at a flight school at Southeastern Oklahoma State University with his best academic performance ever. Melissa Russell, meanwhile, is planning to return to flying on a limited basis for Southwest in August.

The future ahead for the entire family won’t be easy to navigate, but with God’s healing and a strong faith the Russell’s celebrate Grace every day.

The PK community also has been an inspiration for the family, with Melissa Russell noting the support they have received from the PK community. The volunteers at St. Francis and Our Lady of Lourdes have provided great support for the family, she said, and complete strangers have reached out to the family to offer their words of encouragement and prayers.

The Russell family also cannot say enough about how supportive Southwest Airlines and their airline co-workers have been.

“It’s true what they say,†Melissa Russell said. “Texans have big hearts.â€

To remember her daughter, Melissa Russell decided to hold a golf tournament to honor Grace and show support for the Cook Children’s Health Foundation. Conducting a golf tournament takes hours of organizing and gathering support, and Pam Hammond, the wife of The Cliffs Resort’s golf pro, Mike Hammond, has stepped up to help.

The two women are putting together the first “Boots and Hearts†Golf Classic to take place September 16th at the resort. All proceeds will support the Cook Children’s Health Foundation, and Melissa Russell has started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable foundation to aid families at the foundation who might need financial help during a medical crisis.

Melissa Russell described Cook Children’s as “an amazing organization†and said the people who work there “can’t be thanked enough.†She and Pam Hammond are working hard to put on a tournament that celebrates Grace’s spirit, and both are thankful for those who have helped during the Russell family’s challenging time.

Every day is a struggle for Melissa Russell and her family, but she shared a religious passage that is helping her cope with the circumstances of Grace’s death. In it, the bighorn sheep is a symbol of adaptability and strength. It can live in harsh conditions and survive with little food and water, and it’s a powerful animal that the Native Americans respect. This animal is seen as a symbol of strength, power and grace, and in Christianity the bighorn sheep is a symbol of resurrection, with the sheep’s ability to climb steep rocky slopes being a metaphor for Jesus’ resurrection.

How beautiful that Grace was so called to this animal, and that it was this animal that paved her way to heaven. The hope is that Grace’s love of life is remembered and celebrated.

A red and black logo for the pk magazine.
A red and black logo for the pk magazine.

Pictured above:  Sweet, smart, witty, Grace loved living at the lake.  Being out in nature was her special place.  She loved to read, and enjoyed art, cooking, design, photography, sewing, and she loved animals and her church!

A red and black logo for the pk magazine.

The Russell Family

Top Left: Grace flying with her dad, John Russell, who is a 24-year veteran pilot for Southwest Airlines.  

Center Photos:  Grace and her brother John Russell Jr.  Bottom Left: Grace with her mom, Melissa Russell, and dad, John Russell.  Melissa has worked as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines for 25 years and is planning to return on a limited basis for Southwest in August.

A red and black logo for the pk magazine.
A red and black logo for the pk magazine.
A red and black logo for the pk magazine.