Retrospective: Danny shares favorite stories of ’14

It’s a long-standing tradition that news outlets look back at the previous year’s biggest stories, and as we prepared to unveil our choices for 2014 – which we’ll do on New Year’s Eve – my Watchman cohort (for lack of a better term) Jeremy proposed a twist.

He suggested that, in addition to the formal listing of top stories, he and I each write about our favorite stories of the year – sandwiched around the year in photos as selected by our other sidekick and photographer extraordinaire, Michael.

Now, there was no set definition for the term “favorite”, as used in compiling this list. It doesn’t necessarily mean the most fun stories we covered, nor the most meaningful or even the most impactful to the community. It means, Jeremy explained, whatever we want it to mean. His only comment was that my favorite stories did not necessarily have to be ones I wrote. Same for him when he shares his favorites later this week.

So, here are my favorite stories of 2014, in no particular order.

potd - snowball fightThere’s just enough kid in me to still enjoy a good snow, and that’s something there hasn’t been a lot of around here in recent years. So when last January’s three-inch snowfall shut everything down for a couple of days, it allowed me to once again enjoy the quiet beauty of a gray winter day punctuated by those soft, feathery flakes floating from the sky.

Watching the neighborhood kids have a blast – for some this was the first real snow of their lives – took me back. And, of course, driving around looking for that perfect snow picture to post on the Watchman website provided excitement as well.

Many, many years ago, I interviewed Demopolis’ Randy Howell, who is possibly the world’s foremost authority on jigger pole fishing. I had the chance to do so again in March, for a story featured in the Watchman’s first Outdoors magazine – West Alabama Sportsman.

Randy’s an awfully likeable fellow, and listening to him talk about his passion was a treat all over again. Any time you interview a prominent person – and Randy certainly fits that bill in certain outdoors circles – you hope to do the person and the topic justice. Randy was gracious and expressed appreciation when he saw the magazine.

Sticking with the outdoors, one Saturday in August I got word through family connections that a possible world record alligator had been pulled ashore that morning in Wilcox County. Using those same connections – and yes, I’m somewhat shamelessly tooting the Watchman’s own horn on this one – we got pictures and, to our knowledge, broke the story. The first media outlet to report it on a broader scale did so some four hours after our photos went up.

gator1The Watchman’s hits went through the roof. It was by far our biggest day and is hands down the biggest story to grace the Watchman since its inception over two years ago. (So much for suspense as to our top story of 2014!)

Watching the story go viral was equally fun. I was getting calls from relatives in Florida and New York saying the Alabama gator was all over the news there, and asking if I’d heard about it.

“Well, yeah,” I boastfully retorted. “We broke the story.”

A few weeks later, Mandy Stokes of Thomaston, who landed the giant along with four family members who accompanied her on the hunt, was gracious enough to spare a little of her suddenly-scarce time and speak with me over the phone for a story to publish in our fall edition of the Sportsman.

The interview was a real treat – her honesty and down-to-earth wit made the discourse more of a conversation than an interview. Again, it is the writer’s hope that the story did her justice.

Covering high school football is something that never gets old. Like most journalists around here, it’s where I cut my teeth. And roaming the sidelines on Friday nights is something I’ll continue to do as long as I enjoy it.

A little insight into the Watchman’s Friday night coverage protocol. Jeremy’s standard beat is Demopolis High School. That leaves me taking the biggest home game among the remaining local teams – generally Linden High, Marengo Academy or Sweet Water.potd - ma fans

Each of those three venues brings its own special enjoyment. Marengo Academy is like one big family. In order for independent schools in this day and age to provide quality education – which they do – and keep their heads above water financially – which some do – their patrons and supporters have to pull together like a family. And that’s the atmosphere you get at an MA game.

Sweet Water is more like a community event. The folks in Sweet Water are just good people, and home football games are one of the best ways for them to demonstrate their community pride. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve won umpteen state championships over the years, or that one witnesses football in perhaps its purest form when the Bulldogs take the field.

Linden High School is some of both – one senses a little bit of family and a little bit of community at Patriot games. Toss in the fact that head coach Andro Williams has done remarkable things in his nine-year tenure at LHS – the man, as the old saying goes, can flat-out coach.

Again, favorite stories, for our purposes here, does not necessarily mean fun or happy occasions. The events of May16 were neither fun nor happy, but John Essex High School’s final graduation ceremony left an indelible mark on everyone there.

Due to declining enrollment, the Marengo County Board of Education had voted only weeks before to close the school, which has stood proudly in western Marengo County since 1966, educating hundreds if not thousands of youngsters over the years.

So, the young men and women marching that night carried a somber pride with them. It was as though all the former graduates were walking with them. One particularly nice touch was that members of the junior class, who had been together for years but would be dispersed to other schools for their senior year, were provided special seating and recognition.

The event exuded a strange poignancy, and the manner in which faculty, families and especially the 12 graduates held their heads high couldn’t help but make one feel a sense of peace amid the sadness.

essex 2