Without even considering what went on in Washington, D.C., the past 12 months certainly can be called stormy.
Clouds gathered and lightning flashed at City Hall in January, then winds whipped in mid-May. We mean really whipped, as Abilene was struck by an EF-2 tornado.
And while gunfire ripped through the American consciousness, at an El Paso Walmart and in the streets of Midland and Odessa, this past summer, we remember those killed — including Brownwood’s Kameron Karltess Brown — and injured, namely Abilene’s Larry Shores and Brownwood’s Timmothy Hardaway.
Stormy? Negative comments to a “rough cut” of the movie “Brother’s Keeper” flooded the city. The film did not depict Abilene High School’s 2009 state championship football season as many had expected.
There were some stormy moments between city of Abilene and Taylor County officials regarding tax breaks for a new downtown hotel.
It continued raining on Wylie football much of the fall, while the Cooper Cougars stormed three rounds deep into the playoffs. There was a storm of protest after No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor kicked Hardin-Simmons out of its bid for the playoffs with a field goal as time expired.
The city stopped accepting plastics and glass as recyclable items, whetting some protest.
And for “Star Wars” fans everywhere, the year ended with stormtroopers and more returning to the big screen with the opening of “The Rise of Skywalker.”
Appropriately enough, local deejay Terri Knight (a.k.a. The Queen) sang “Stormy Monday” with visiting blues guitarist Carvin Jones accompanying her at the Paramount Theatre.
The stormy national political scene, which may hit Category 5 hurricane status in 2020, blew into town. At times, flags, T-shirts and other gear in support of President Donald Trump were seen placed strategically about town under tents and sales looked brisk. Trump ball caps were worn about town, from Meals on Wheels to even the performance of “Messiah.”
We did not see any Stormy Daniels memorabilia for sale.
Abilenians were invested in national issues, marching and/or assembling to promote awareness of human trafficking, civil rights and LGBTQ issues. There also was a march to commemorate a 1969 walkout by Hispanic students at Abilene High School to protest inequality.
The spring election season took shape, with several contested races. We’ll have two rematches, as former Sheriff Les Bruce takes on the man who ousted him from office, current Sheriff Ricky Bishop. There also is a third candidate in the race.
And for House District 71, two-term Republican state Rep. Stan Lambert again will face Democrat Sam Hatton.
Lambert, in November 2018, won 70 percent of the vote against Hatton.
Earlier in the year, Lambert made a list, but not the one compiled by Santa Claus. He allegedly was one of 10 Texas House Republicans named by Speaker Dennis Bonnen as susceptible to defeat and needing to go. When word got out and that the list was checked more than twice, Bonnen was in trouble. He eventually chose not to seek re-election to House District 25.
It was also a year of cheers and beers. Abilene Christian University pulled a double-dip by landing both its men’s and women’s basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament, and March Madness ensued.
Beer stayed in the news, with the opening of Six Brothers Brewery and The Local, both downtown, and work beginning on the new location of Sockdolager Brewing Company at the former Matera Paper Company site, which will be known as Matera Gardens and be an event venue.
The annual Abilene Beer Summit again was well attended at what could be called FrontBeer Texas!
Meanwhile, word was out that Belt Buckle Distillery would open in 2020, offering bourbon whisky.
Mainline churches continue to struggle with aging, waning congregations. First Christian, one of the four “downtown churches,” now is meeting at the Enterprise Building. It sold its site to neighboring First Baptist, which had grand expansion plans.
Other congregations announced merger plans, either sharing a site or uniting.
Potholes took a back seat to the forever paving of South First Street, which was a bumpy mess for months. The smooth sailing after work was done reminded residents of how bad other streets are in town.
Abilene police had a busy year, including a bank robbery and moving to new headquarters. That leaves the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office pondering whether to fix the aging Law Enforcement Center shared with police or go on patrol for a new site.
At year’s end, the fate of the dilapidated former jail was on parole, but it is likely headed toward demolition.
A highlight of 2019 was more than 12,000 attending the ninth Outlaws & Legends Music Festival. Kris Kristofferson was the headliner. For the 10th anniversary show in three months, Willie Nelson will be on the road again to Abilene.
Photo Gallery: Back at the Back Porch of Texas, 2019
Nelson is 86, prompting some to wonder, “Willie make it?”
We absolutely believe he will, so no blue eyes crying in the rain, people.
Speaking of Luckenbach, here’s our review of the top 10 news stories from 2019:
10: City builds, tears down
The former Kmart site in west Abilene became Stanmart. Or Lawmart. The nicknames quickly came.
The Abilene Police Department, once housed at City Hall and then at a former department store in south downtown, moved to the home of the national chain. The local store closed in December 2016.
Joining the move were the city’s water customer office, Municipal Court and Child Advocacy Center. The move was met with more good news – there’s plenty of free parking.
The former water office at the corner of Cypress and North Sixth streets was demolished, creating an entirely empty city block where it is hoped a convention-style hotel will be built.
Additionally, a chain-link fence was put around Civic Plaza Hotel downtown. Regarded as an eyesore with a history of criminal activity, the former downtown hotel resides between the Abilene Convention Center and City Hall. It won’t much longer, due for demolition in 2020 as the efforts continue to spruce up the city’s central business district.
9: Here’s looking at you, Virginia and Robert
Abilene lost two pillars of the community in 2019.
Dr. Virginia Connally died in March, shy of her 107th birthday. For more than a century of good health, the good doctor should be honored.
She also was Abilene’s first female physician. So there’s that bit of history.
Most importantly, to her and others, however, was her dedication to worldwide mission efforts. The Connally Missions Center at Hardin-Simmons is named for her. A gift from her and her husband, Ed, made that possible.
She was remembered as an avid reader and someone who made sure others were encouraged in life.
In December, the city lost its expert on movies, Robert Holladay.
His decades of teaching at both Cooper High School and McMurry University was noted, as well as dedication to family. But most Abilenians knew him as “the guy who talked before movies” at the Paramount Theatre, where he served faithfully as its classic film director.
It’s not always a nice world out there, but Holladay gravitated toward films that celebrated niceness. He enjoyed traveling, the opera and preserving local history.
Connally and Holladay both provided models of living life and serving others that will be examples for years to come.
8: New CPS court
It’s sad that Abilene needs two courts charged with child protection.
With the 326th District Court, Taylor County’s family court, overburdened, the state OKed the addition of a new court. April Propst, formerly on staff in the 326th, was named associate judge for the new court.
She will preside over child protection cases filed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Her appointment is good for four years.
The primary advantage of the new court, she said, will be to free 326th Judge Paul Rotenberry to handle the large number of private cases.
Drug abuse continues to be the fuel that ignites family issues. Methamphetamine use is the biggest part of that.
Until that is resolved, court cases will mount and the county now has two courts to more quickly address cases.
The good news, as it is, was tempered by news that Rotenberry had a medical incident while exercising and fell. He temporarily was absent for court and was outfitted with a defibrillator.
7. O, ‘Brother’s Keeper,’ where art thou?
There was much excitement ahead of the local premiere of “Brother’s Keeper,” a movie about the 2009 state championship football team at Abilene High School.
What a way to remember the unbeaten season 10 years later.
The anticipation was high. Film crews had been in town, the cast included Laurence Fishburne as beloved late barbecuer Harold Christian and Milo Gibson as the team’s chaplain, Chad Mitchell. The movie title was taken form the 2010 book by local author Al Pickett, with Mitchell.
Hollywood hopefuls filled the stands at Shotwell Stadium for game simulation shooting. Local merchants and others ponied up to be seen in the movie.
Former players and coaches, fans and community members arrived at the Convention Center in May for dinner, photo ops and a showing of what was being called a “rough cut.”
Boy, was it rough. The movie was not a season retrospective, as most envisioned, but a study of that fall from the perspective of key players, coaches and Mitchell. Former AHS coach Steve Warren was in attendance, and did not dispute how that was portrayed.
But it wasn’t the feel-good movie that was expected. Commenters said the film made Abilene look bad and sad. Others questioned the lack of football action.
More of that was coming, movie officials promised.
But a nationwide launch in the fall never happened, and the year closed with some wondering if it ever will be released.
And some of those hoped it would not.
6: Downtown: The lights are much brighter there
Much of the focus in 2019 was on downtown Abilene.
Construction was everywhere.
In contrast to the demolition to the city water services building and impending leveling of Civic Plaza, the remodeling of two buildings began.
The former Busch Jewelers now is home to The Local, which specializes in tacos and drinks.
One block south and east, the three-story Motis Building was getting a dramatic face-lift. Scaffolding covered the street-side exterior, as bricks were removed. It will be home to Grain Theory, a local brewery, and other businesses.
Abilene already had the Back Porch of Texas. Now it has the Front Porch Coffee Company and Bakery on North Second Street.
The old Cotton Exchange, with its roof caved in, has been purchased. Its new purpose will be to offer retail and office space with a central courtyard.
The purchaser was Charlie Wolfe, who also has turned a former corner commercial space into an event venue (201 Mesquite) and has condominiums in the works at the former Pride Refining Inc. building.
Son Sam opened The Hallows on Pine Street.
5: Madness marches into Abilene
Who doesn’t love March Madness?
When the college basketball season winds up and conference tournaments are settled, attention turns to which team will win men’s and women’s championship.
Texas Tech did something in 2019 that its football team hasn’t done. The Red Raiders made it to the national championship game, losing in overtime to Virginia.
That was big news locally, but bigger news was ACU landing teams in the two tournaments in its first year of eligibility as an NCAA Division I program.
Each won their respective Southland Conference tournament, winning an automatic bid to The Dance. The men played one of the most storied programs in basketball, Kentucky. The women drew No. 1 Baylor, which eventually won the tournament.
The teams did not win, which was not unexpected. But to watch the Wildcats on TV, and the school featured in a USA TODAY story, was thrilling.
Smartly, ACU locked up coaches Joe Golding and Julie Goodenough with new contracts.
The men lost many key players going into the new season, but the women were favored to repeat as Southland champs. They lost just once, at Oklahoma, before Christmas.
4: The B-21 has landed
Abilene’s Dyess Air Force Base will be home to the new generation bomber, the B-21 Raider, which one day will replace the durable B-1B Lancer.
The base also will house the operational test squadron of the new bomber and its weapons training school.
The Air Force assigned training for the B-21 to Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. Ellsworth also is home to B-1s.
The B-1 came to Dyess in 1985. The air base also is home to a fleet of C-130s, providing a dual mission to the Air Force.
During the summer, Dyess got a new commander. Col. Jose “Ed” Sumangil took over for Col. Brandon Parker. It was history meets history, as Parker, the base’s first African-American commander, passed leadership to Sumangil, who was born in the Philippines.
The difference in the two men is that Parker had not been to Dyess before he arrived as commander of the 7th Bomb Wing and the base. This is the fourth stop at the West Texas base for Sumangil, who also commands the bomb wing.
In October, Dyess Memorial Park opened near the front gate of the base.
Designed by Mitch Wright, the grandson of longtime local military advocate “Dub” Wright, the space honors 79 fallen airmen. The design features sunlight illuminating the time of day when the tragedies occurred.
The dedication of the park was attended by family members of many of the deceased.
3: Hotel Transformania
Not all the details have been worked out, and some questioned how many of those there are, but a convention-style hotel is on the way to downtown Abilene.
It will have the DoubleTree brand.
The total price tag was set at $66.7 million, with the city chipping in $23.1 million for the convention center component of the project.
That part will be financed through $4 million in cash on hand and $19.1 million in certificates of obligation.
A nonprofit was created, Local Government Corporation (LGC), that will own and fund the hotel component of the project — approximately $43.54 million — through the issuance of hotel revenue bonds, expected to be payable over 30 years.
A variety of funding sources have been found, including $7.5 million in contributions from foundations and use of hotel occupancy tax (HOT) funds that otherwise would go to the state.
A city block now is cleared to build the high-rise structure across the street from the Convention Center. The idea is to lure conventions and other sizable events to the city, an economic boost that proponents believe will greatly outweigh the money being invested in it.
The city of Abilene’s portion became an issue in the May local election. Critics said the city should not be in the hotel business, and that taxpayer money should be used for projects such as street repair and maintenance.
Others championed the economic shot in the arm and dramatic change to the downtown skyline. Businesses that have opened downtown over the past few years have been expecting increased traffic.
And with that, the City Council OK’d putting some of the last 2015 street repair bond money into fixing broken pieces of concrete in downtown streets. Sidewalk improvements, too, are promised.
Candidates for council who supported downtown efforts won election to office in May, signaling that public support rested on the side of this effort.
Perhaps in another year, this would be the top story.
As the calendar turned to 2019, attention was brought to social media posts by two-term Councilman Kyle McAlister. Some dated to 2010, and many poked fun at Hispanics.
Or, was this not funny at all and racist.
The January news set off a firestorm of words, both in anger and apology.
With the mayor present, McAlister apologized. Not good enough, not believable, others responded.
His resignation was called for. He did not resign but in short order, he lost his gig on public radio station KACU, was cut by the Abilene ISD as a soccer official and was terminated by his employer, Aflac.
At a January council meeting, McAlister was not censured, though he voted to censure himself. A public comment time, normally at the end of a meeting, was not moved ahead of the censure vote. That led a number of people in council chambers to walk out in protest. Some hurled comments at the council before exiting chambers, and a group formed outside to chant that McAlister must go.
Instead of resigning, McAlister ran for re-election. He drew two opponents, and faced attorney Cory Clements in a summer runoff. McAlister won a third term by 84 votes.
The rest of the year went quietly, with McAlister, known for his playfulness, dressing in pink for an October council meeting during breast cancer awareness month.
In response to the claims of racism in this case and a broader divide in the city, Mayor Anthony Williams formed a group to address community unity.
1: It was a tornado
Reports of wind damage in west Abilene in the early morning hours of May 18 were greatly understated.
While some in the strike zone immediately determined that a tornado struck Abilene, it was the next day before a National Weather Service team from San Angelo confirmed it. It was “at least” an EF-2 tornado, which packed winds as high as 135 mph.
The storm carved a path of damage more than two miles in length. The twister sometimes left areas undamaged while pulling off roofs and toppling trees on an entire block. U-Haul trailers were scattered, and outlying buildings at Reagan Elementary damaged.
No one was killed, and only one minor injury reported.
More than 300 structures were affected.
The city quickly mobilized to secure the affected areas. A recovery hub was set up at Pioneer Drive Baptist Church. Volunteers were organized to help remove debris as teams worked to restore power.
The recovery went from weeks to months, not unexpectedly, but the team effort may be the most notable of the natural disaster. Abilene learned on the fly. One lesson was to combine efforts, and so United Way of Abilene and Community Foundation of Abilene joined to have donations funneled to them and hasten distribution.
There were happy endings. Discovery Studios, which sustained significant damage, relocated and celebrated that spirit prevailed over the storm.
And looking at quite possibly a turbulent year ahead, that outlook may serve us all.
Greg Jaklewicz is editor of the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.