By Michael V. Hannigan
The final 2011 edition of The Malakoff News is on the stands, the traditional time we release the Top 5 Stories of The Year.
I select the stories based on three factors: the number of people impacted, the amount of media coverage, and the amount of discussion generated in the community.
Every year I put together this list, and every year I am amazed at the type of stories that come out of our small community. There are two stories on the list this year that received not only state, but national attention. One was even picked up overseas.
But the top spot didn’t go to either of those stories. Instead, the top story was the resolution of a long-running controversy.
1. ROCK BUILDING REOPENS
This marks the fifth consecutive year that Malakoff ISD’s Old Rock Building has been on this list, and that in itself makes it worthy of the top spot. There have been more stories written, more arguments between friends and more feelings hurt over the fate of the old building than with any other issue of the past decade.
To this day, with students enjoying the new facility, the wrong word at the wrong time to the wrong person can still spark a harsh response.
But barring the unthinkable, the long-running controversy is over. In August of this year, school district officials and community members celebrated the re-opening of the building as part of the Malakoff Elementary School campus.
“There were a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions as we went through this process,” said Malakoff Elementary School Principal Ronny Snow during a re-dedication ceremony. “We are all happy that it ends this way today with a celebration for what I think is the prettiest building in the district.”
Malakoff ISD Trustee Dr. Pat Smith, who attended school at the Rock Building, was the main speaker at the event and reminded the crowd how the building linked the present to the past.
He also spoke about the political struggle over the building. At one point, after nearly four years of debate, it became clear that the building could not be moved and that the school district would not relinquish control of the building to turn it into a community library, he said.
“There was not an alternative left, we didn’t think,” Smith said. “The answer to the question was right in front of us, and none of us could figure it out except (then board president) Rick Vieregge. It was not a compromise; the answer was a solution (to growing enrollment), and the solution was to put the building into use like it had always been. We did it for $20 per square foot cheaper than we could have done it building a new building.”
The controversy began in 2007 when the school board voted to demolish the building because of the estimated cost of renovation and because tearing the building down was part of the plan when the new elementary school was built.
Grassroots opposition rose up and a state law commonly known as the Texas Antiquities Code postponed the project. The Texas Historical Commission (THC) became involved, and a THC project reviewer wrote that the building is “eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places” and said the THC “strongly encourages the preservation of this important building.”
Then the Malakoff Historical Society became involved and asked school board members to consider turning the building into a museum with space to house the Malakoff Red Waller Community Library.
The final decision was made in May 2010 by the voters, who overwhelmingly approved a bond that included renovating the Rock Building.
2. NATIVITY SCENE
No one could foresee the storm that would arise when a Wisconsin-based atheist group demanded Henderson County officials remove a nativity scene from the Courthouse lawn in early December. After all, the Freedom From Religion Foundation makes those sorts of demands all around the country all year long.
But, this was Henderson County at Christmas. This time, events drew state, then national, and finally international attention.
It started with county officials deciding to fight the FFRF. County Attorney Clint Davis wrote, “Henderson County believes that it is in complete compliance with the requirements of the Constitution and acting very much in accord with prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings.”
In addition, four pastors, including Malakoff First Baptist Church pastor Dr. Nathan Lorick, organized a rally at the courthouse that drew an estimated 5,000 to “come together in love, to unite and show the world the true spirit of Christ and Christmas.”
Lorick became the de facto face of the pro-nativity movement, and wound up on national television, national radio, and was even interviewed by the London Daily Mail.
Although Christmas came with the nativity scene remaining on the lawn and no FFRF displays in sight, the issue isn’t dead yet.
The FFRF vowed to be back to get one of its anti-religion banners displayed with the nativity scene.
The pastors also are not ready to quit, and Sand Springs Baptist Church pastor Erick Graham has called for a joint-effort to put on an event at the Cain Center Feb. 11 to provide help to those in the county in need.
It is very possible the nativity could be on this list again in 2012.
3. DROUGHT AND WILDFIRES
For seven months, ending in November, Henderson County was under a burn ban because of extreme drought conditions. How bad a drought? Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon wrote to the Legislature in a special report in October, “This drought has been the most intense one-year drought in Texas since at least 1895 when statewide weather records begin, and though it is difficult to compare droughts of different durations, it probably already ranks among the five worst droughts overall.”
Because of the climate, county lakes reached their lowest levels in memory and area agriculture producers were forced to deeply cull herds.
As the drought settled in, Texas became a tinderbox and wildfires a daily occurrence. At one time in September, 57 large wildfires were burning across 17 counties.
Henderson County escaped catastrophic damage because of the work of area firefighters, who seemed to be battling fire outbreaks everyday during the summer. Reports of fires sparking up flashed across social media networks, and the community rallied to provide support and supplies to the local VFDs.
In Malakoff, 250 acres were burned in one blaze that crept right up to the back door of city houses.
To make matters worse, Henderson County Fire Marshal Darrell Furrh was dealing with suspected arson and eventually indicted three individuals on two different cases.
Things calmed down with mid-November rains, but it doesn’t look like that will last long.
In his blog, Nielson-Gammon wrote, “I’ve started telling anyone who’s interested that it’s likely that much of Texas will still be in severe drought … next summer, with water supply implications even worse than those we are now experiencing.”
4. PERRY REPLACES SPIES
No single entity impacts the Malakoff area as much as the Malakoff Independent School District, and no one person impacts the district as much as the superintendent. So it was a big story in March when then-Superintendent Dr. John Spies announced he would be leaving to take a similar job at Van Alstyne ISD.
Spies said he was leaving because of family reasons. In fact, a reporter who covers Van Alstyne said Spies told him he had decided he would stay at Malakoff until he retired, unless the superintendent job at Van Alstyne came open. Three weeks later Spies learned that Van Alstyne was looking for a new superintendent.
Picking a superintendent is always an important decision, but this year it was even more so for MISD trustees because of state budget problems. They unanimously chose to look inward and picked high school principal Randy Perry.
Perry was the MHS principal for four years and an educator for 27 years before accepting the position.
The move was universally lauded in the community.
5. HISTORIC TIGERS
Making history is a good way to get yourself on any Top Stories of the Year list, and the Malakoff Tigers rewrote the school’s record books in 2011.
The Tigers finished the season with a 9-3 record under head coach Jamie Driskell. The effort marked the first time a MHS football team had back-to-back nine-win seasons. In Driskell’s first three years, the Tigers are 26-8. That is the best three-year run in school history, topping the 24-5 record posted by the 1947-48-49 team.
This year’s Tigers also served up Driskell’s first playoff win as a head coach, a 10-3 win over Little River Academy in a bi-district contest in Groesbeck. The year ended in College Station against East Chambers.
Along the way, the team energized the town and became “the story” of October and November.
“This is my 16th year and this is the most fun I’ve ever had,” said Driskell after the last game.
A lot of Tiger fans were saying the same thing.