As a busy year draws to a close, I wanted to put a list together of some of my best or more interesting work this year. Stories I covered in 2017 took me to Atlanta for the Toledo Blade and then — in a twist — I moved from Toledo to Atlanta.
Sometimes I get bogged down in the day-to-day grind of journalism: The frustration of waiting for public records, trying to get sources to return calls, keeping up with the news as it happens, and — more recently — learning a new beat, developing new sources, and navigating my way around a new city.
It’s easy to forget how lucky I am to be able to tell stories for a living. As I look at this list, I remember all the people who let me into their homes, who let me ask them questions as they cried while watching their home burn, who just picked up the phone when I called.
Here are some of my most memorable stories of the year from both The Blade and The AJC:
- Chances are good that if you don’t already know an Olivia or a Mason, you will soon meet one. Those two names topped the list of most popular names for babies born in Lucas County in 2016, according to statistics provided by the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department. Down deeper on the statewide list, more unusual names pop up. When 55 newborn boys in Ohio are named Kyrie, as happened in 2016, one has to wonder how much it has to do with Kyrie Irving. The Cleveland Cavaliers player made a big-time shot to help win game 7 of the NBA finals in June, ending a championship drought to the delight of frenzied fans. With a little Faith (actually, quite a few: 118 girls in Ohio) that Journee (51 girls) ended with a Major (52 boys) Legend (59 boys).
- TCHULA, Miss. — Gail Rayford-Ambeau was born a Toledoan, despite the Mississippi blood thick in her veins and the trace of magnolia in her voice. Her parents left southern oppression for northern opportunities in 1957, during a black exodus that emptied segregated states and filled Midwestern industrial cities.
- VALDOSTA, Ga. — The Rev. Floyd Rose preaches from the pulpit of a southern Georgia church whose sloped wood-paneled ceiling resembles the upside-down hull of a slave ship.
- JACKSON, Miss. — The passage of years has a peculiar way of drawing the past closer, so that by the time George Armstrong turned 80 his proximity to slavery no longer seemed so far away or long ago. He grew up with a tale, told by one generation to the next, of his great-grandfather and brother. Time’s other trick, of blurring the edges of memory, hasn’t softened the harshness of his heritage.
- ATLANTA — Younger, educated blacks whose parents and grandparents migrated north are reversing that well-traveled route and moving south. They come for opportunity and stay for familiarity. It’s often a job that draws Rust Belt expats to southern boomtowns. But the diversity, culture, and family ties soon make their new city feel like home. Ohio posted net-migration losses among both college-educated blacks and whites from 2010 to 2014, but the African-American population fell at a greater rate.
- Kristin Schnerer calls herself a “news junkie.” The Start High School social studies teacher engages her classes in discussions about current events, and fact-checks students when they spout false stories spread on Facebook. The task of sifting through what is true and what is not, what is opinion or fact, what is journalism or advertising has gotten trickier as sources of online information proliferate and the heat of political rhetoric rises. Miss Schnerer has a timely and practical solution: Teach students how to analyze the news. The Toledo Board of Education recently approved a course she will pilot next school year that aims to do exactly this. Media and Politics — a half-credit elective course for juniors and seniors — is like no other class at Toledo Public Schools.
- Cindy Muir greeted students by name as she walked down the hallway at Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls and smiled when they called out “Nurse Cindy.” Then she spotted a child headed toward her with a nosebleed and quickly ushered the uniformed girl to the school nurse’s office. From first-aid treatments to giving daily medications and promoting exercise, Mrs. Muir’s work as a registered nurse stationed full-time at the central city elementary school keeps her connected to students and their health-care needs. Toledo Public Schools recently hit the midway point of a three-year partnership with ProMedica that placed school nurses in each elementary building.
- JERRY CITY, Ohio — A snippet of shoestring is one of the only clues to Jamie Smith’s mysterious birth 26 years ago. On March 24, 1991, she was found in the back seat of an unlocked sedan in Fostoria. She appeared on the plush upholstery as if dropped by a stork one Sunday afternoon. The unexpected bundle contained a pastel blanket, a blue towel, a boyish striped shirt sized for a kindergartner, and a quiet, 6-plus pound baby girl. She was a couple days old and likely recently fed. A bit of string tied off her umbilical cord.
- VAN WERT, Ohio — Barely a hint of the biting rhetoric that has dogged U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from teachers unions and other public school advocates surfaced today as she toured Van Wert City Schools alongside an ardent critic. President Trump’s cabinet pick, controversial among many public school educators for her charter school advocacy, spent several amicable hours in this rural northwest Ohio district with Randi Weingarten, leader of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
- METAMORA, Ohio — Investigators found her purple bicycle before they found Sierah Joughin’s body. It was that scene — the bike discarded amid trampled corn, discovered hours after the 20-year-old University of Toledo student was last seen pedaling along a rural stretch of Fulton County — that convinced police something was seriously amiss. It was about midnight, one year ago. A seasoned deputy called Sheriff Roy Miller at home. He rarely receives such calls.
My on-scene interview with the UpTown Association president on what the Wachter apartment building means to this resurgent neighborhood: pic.twitter.com/q8sn7kTAh4
— Vanessa McCray (@vanmccray) June 13, 2017
- A jewel of Toledo’s resurgent UpTown neighborhood caught fire Tuesday, forcing residents of the 18-unit apartment building onto the street where they watched in disbelief as the 1897 structure burned. Michael McCarthy, 35, answered his husband’s phone call and tried to explain the magnitude of the flames that devoured the roof of the old rental complex at 321 16th St., where he has lived for seven years. “It’s all gone, OK?” he said. “It’s over.”
- Soon after Brady Hall returned from a fun-filled Michigan camp trip in May, the Washington Local student said his sixth-grade teacher left his class “frantically in the middle of the day.” The 12-year-old who recently finished sixth grade at Hiawatha Elementary said he hasn’t seen his teacher since. The classroom door shut firmly behind five Washington Local teachers Wednesday when the school board unanimously accepted their resignations. They quit rather than face disciplinary proceedings after a district probe determined they left a sixth-grade camp in Fenton, Mich. and drank alcohol at restaurants.
- Former University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs is among 121 employees to take a buyout as UT aims to save money by shrinking its work force. Dr. Jacobs, 76, will receive $12,500 to end his UT employment, according to documents provided by the university in response to The Blade’s records request. The sum is in addition to a million-dollar payout he negotiated at the time he resigned the presidency in 2014, before his contract expired.
- Sharon Gaber sums up her first two years at the helm of the University of Toledo with the kind of measured assessment that has come to define her leadership. Much has been done. Much remains to do. Ms. Gaber took over a university fighting falling enrollment, low faculty morale, and an $11.5 million midyear shortfall that arose just months into her five-year contract. She’s tried the last two years to right the ship while charting an ambitious course for UT’s future.
- A gun-toting student or intruder is often the focus of school safety concerns, but a Douglas County high school shut down Thursday because of an unexpected safety threat: a veteran teacher with a handgun. Lithia Springs High School closed after a teacher shot himself in his classroom office before students arrived.
- Tamar Quincey spent years lying about who she is. The 26-year-old grew up surrounded by devout Christians, who taught her traditional views of sexuality and gender. She told people she felt “called to celibacy,” or that she was waiting for God to send her someone to marry. Then she told the truth. Quincey first came out as gay in 2016. About a year later, she began transitioning from male to female after enrolling at the all-male Morehouse College.
- The freshly painted mural on a Buford Highway liquor store may seem an unlikely spot for a political statement. But to its creator, Roberto Hernandez, the many-hued hands that reach upward along the once-drab exterior of Atlanta Package tell his chapter in a story that a gutsy immigrant generation wants the nation to hear. Hernandez, 31, was born in Mexico and lived there until 1999, when he and his sister joined their mother in the United States. He is one of nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came here as children to receive deportation protection and work permits through the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
- Raymond Partolan lifted his denim pant leg a few inches to reveal more of his brown boots. He offered an apology for his casual attire; it’s Friday — the one weekday where he can wear what makes him feel most comfortable to work at the Atlanta-area law office. He loves country music. The background picture on his cell phone depicts Georgia’s state flag. The state motto — “wisdom, justice, moderation” — is tattooed across his shoulder. “After being an American and identifying as a Georgian, thirdly my sense of identity is grounded as being a Southerner,” said Partolan. “I love the best parts of the culture here.” Ask this 24-year-old, who grew up in Macon, where he belongs and he doesn’t mention his birth country. He left the Philippines as a 15-month-old baby.Now Partolan, and thousands of other young, undocumented immigrants who live here, is grappling with the threat that it may not always be home.
- Atlanta Public Schools is dealing with another cheating investigation. A quarter of the police officers in the district’s recently sworn-in force admitted receiving answers on a state-administered test. Disciplinary proceedings are coming for at least 18 employees. One dispatcher allegedly fed answers to 17 officers while they took the open-book, 30-question, multiple-choice exam.
- Three sets of eyes are trained on a bank of glowing screens that wraps around the room. Data flashes. Charts fill a large panel. The systems engineers sit in front of smaller, desktop computer monitors. They scan information as it pours in and check for problems. The network operations center, which opened a couple of years ago in a former school turned technology hub, is the front line of the DeKalb County school district’s defense against hackers, cyberthreats, and data theft. “We get close to about 3,000 attacks a day, and so we are able to see it and constantly make adjustments,” said chief information officer Gary Brantley, who likened the onslaught to a barrage of missiles. “The biggest focus is, we are trying to protect kids. We are trying to protect student information.”