Your Top 10 stories of 2009

DeWayne Bartels

Editor’s note: Year-end pieces, reviewing the top stories of the past year, are a staple of newspapers. Typically, the editor chooses the stories that were most important. Well, this year’s Top 10 stories review in the Peoria Times-Observer is not your typical year-end review. This year the editor is taking a back seat in story selection. You, the reader, chose this year’s Top 10 based on page views at www.peoriatimesobserver.com. What we have is a mix of news, columns and features. Read on and enjoy looking back at 2009.

1. President Obama plays in Peoria

When one of Illinois’ own comes to Peoria aboard Air Force One as President of the United States the page count gets ratcheted up.

In February, President Barack Obama came to Peoria and East Peoria to deliver a speech that broke no new ground in his quest for passage of his economic stimulus bill.

Obama praised Caterpillar chairman Jim Owens, tapped for a post in Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Owens, Obama said, faced tough choices.

“He cares about the long-term, not just the short-term,” Obama said.

“This isn’t about figures on a balance sheet,” Obama said. “It’s about families ... It’s about ripple effects across this community.”

2. Death brings inspiration

Mindy Watkins’ voice cracked in September as she spoke about her former Richwoods High School teacher Wayne Macomber.

Macomber’s death Aug. 29, after a year-long battle with cancer, caught Watkins off-guard. He taught vocal music and coached both boys and girls soccer at Richwoods and founded the Richwoods High School Madrigals.

After graduation from Richwoods in 1989 she lost touch with her favorite teacher.

She headed to the University of Illinois to study piano and music. She was happy there until the day her phone rang and she was told her brother had died. With his death came the death of her playing the piano.

She could just not bring herself to go back to the black and white keys.

When she read of Macomber’s death, Watkins said it was a blow.

“I didn’t get the opportunity to tell him what an influence he had been,” she said, her voice cracking.

She took notes during the funeral service. That added to a specific memory of Macomber led her to write the song, “A Date with an Angel.”

She recalled at the end of class Macomber would tinkle the keys of the piano in the classroom and say, “I have a date with an angel,” referring to his wife.

Watkins had not touched the piano since 1989 when her brother died. But, Macomber’s death brought her back to the piano.

“I wrote the song on the piano. I could not make sense of the piano until I wrote this song. Mr. Macomber inspired me again,” she said. “He gave me back the piano.”

3. Dad delivers son in his car

When Laurie McBride awoke at 3 a.m. on a Monday in June with mild contractions she was not too concerned.

But, as the morning progressed the contractions grew stronger. Laurie called her mid-wife to tell her about the contractions. The mid-wife asked her to meet her at 8 a.m.

“The contractions all of sudden got stronger and so close,” Laurie said. “We were laughing and excited. Then all of a sudden it got real serious,” Laurie said.

They were driving down University and decided to head to the hospital.

All of a sudden Laurie said she realized she was not just having contractions. She was in the midst of delivery.

“I could feel the head coming through,” Laurie said.

Randy pulled over at Sheridan and Forrest Hill.

“He ran around the car. The head was totally out. He started pulling gently on the baby and my water broke,” Laurie said. “Randy got him out and the baby cried right away and pinked up.

“I don’t remember being scared. We were in shock.”

After the delivery Randy headed the car toward the hospital. The baby was in good shape at 7 pounds, 14 ounces and 19 inches. He was named Mark Victor, and his time of birth was placed at 7:53 a.m.

Laurie laughed when asked if she ever planned on doing this again.

“I think this is our last,” she said.

4. ‘It happened so fast’

The sound was sudden, loud and startling.

The woman, we will call Linda, ran from her kitchen to see what was happening. As she approached her front door two men were standing in her doorway.

The Aug. break-in at a North Peoria home intensified already simmering concerns about a recent rash of break-ins, dating back to May, 5th District councilman Dan Irving and Peoria Police chief Steve Settingsgaard found.

The break-ins across far North Peoria had both men scrambling for answers.

The situation left Linda more than scared. She was also angry.

“My husband and I work for everything we have. We donate to charity. We try to do our part in society,” she said.

“What gives anyone the right to walk into my home? I’d like someone to answer that for me. If they had come up to the door and asked me for something I’d have given them the shirt off my back. Hopefully, soon I will be able to sleep through the night. But, I’m not going to hold my breath on that for a little while.”

After Linda’s situation became public Irving said he had been fielding a good number of calls from his constituents about break-ins.

“People are worked up over crime,” he said.

Settingsgaard said burglaries were up significantly city-wide from last year.

5. Quit your job

In February, a press release arrived in the offices of the Peoria Times-Observer which started off with “Now is the time to quit your job, says media expert.”

David Seaman, author of “Dirty Little Secrets of Buzz” says quitting today is the answer for millions of workers caught in limbo.

“Differentiation is king,” he said. “You are going to get fired anyway, it will look better on your resume if you quit. Quitting may prompt your current employer to offer you a raise or improved benefits package to stay.”

Asked if he is serious with this or if it’s just a PR stunt, Seaman replied, “You can be serious and also blatantly be doing a stunt, you know? Cindy Sheehan was serious about not liking George Bush’s war policy, but sitting out in front of his ranch all day and night was definitely a stunt.”

Seaman said he hoped the press release would wake people up.

“People need to re-frame what’s going on. Just a couple years ago, I remember all my friends were interested in promotions, success, vacation time, buying a bigger apartment,” he said.

6. Peoria has hot pockets

In 2008, the Peoria Area Association of Realtors released figures showing Peoria’s 2007 housing numbers were a “bright spot” in Illinois.

Michael Maloof, while checking home sales figures for 2008 in the Peoria market, discovered what he considered a noteworthy trend.

“Edgewild is hot,” Maloof, president of Jim Maloof Realtors, said in March.

Suzanne Miller, an agent with the company, agreed. But, she said it is not just Edgewild that was attracting attention from home buyers.

“Edgewild is beautiful. It’s full of older homes. People get the homes, gut them and make then what they want,” Miller said.

Re/Max Unlimited Broker/Associate Diane Vespa, likewise, was not surprised at the level of activity in Edgewild.

“Subdivisions like Edgewild have a lot to offer. ‘Walkability’ is the buzzword of the day. Consider it’s location. You can walk to restaurants, a bank, a doctor’s office, businesses and District 150’s top performing schools. Kroger, a car wash and a gas station are a two-minute drive away. It also has the perception of safety, and the properties are well taken care of,” Vespa said. 

Miller said while Edgewild is hot, there were pockets of hot real estate activity citywide.

“There’s Northmoor Hills, the Knolls and Lake of the Woods. People are buying and selling. The people buying know what they want,” Miller said.

“I have no idea why these areas are so hot. There’s no one thing you can list. When people find what they want, they are jumping on it.”

Vespa agreed.

“Properties that are in neighborhoods that have high ‘walkability’ scores and access to parks will definitely have an edge in the real estate market. Sommer Place, right off Koerner Road, has a new  park with tennis courts, bike and walking trails and play systems,” she said.

“It is one of Peoria’s best- kept secrets. Maybe not any more, though. Those properties seem to sell at the top of the market.”

7. Club ‘elbo’ed

In April, then TimesNewspapers reporter and columnist Nick Stroman went into a bar and broke a story that went across the nation.

He out with two friends for a drink after diner to The Elbo Room, a karaoke bar on Main Street.

“I noticed one of my friends staring off to the left. He asked, ‘You guys haven’t said anything, so I take it you didn’t notice the sign yet?’

I look over at the lighted sign near the side of the bar, where an establishment would normally list its drink or food specials. ‘This is not a gay bar! This is a karaoke bar! Seven nights a week! Diesel is down the street.’”

Asking the bartender what the meaning was behind the sign brought the explanation that owner was a homophobe and it was a joke.

“He doesn’t like when the gay people come in and sing his favorite songs,” the bartender said.

A photo was taken and posted and a movement began building.

Over the next several days TV coverage was intense as a rally loomed.

In the end, the owner Greg Quast issued an apology to the media and said while he did not write the sign or condone it, it would never happen again.

8. Budget fear

In May, Peoria firefighters, who profess to fear little, were fearful according to Peoria fire chief Kent Tomblin.

Tomblin and the men of Peoria Fire Station 16 on Northmoor Road said what they feared was a city council looking for ways to cut a budget deficit.

“I’m absolutely afraid about cuts,” Tomblin said. “Every department head in the city has that fear.”

One firefighter, working at the 16 House, on the condition of anonymity, spoke bluntly about his fears. Over the years, he said, the fire department has made it easy for the council to cut their funding despite the increase in calls, the growth of the city because of their dedication to their work and their skill.

“The question,” the fire fighter said, “is are we that good or just lucky?

“Until we have a problem that results in a problem, or a crisis, the city doesn’t care about the problems we face, especially in North Peoria. We are in some ways our own worst enemy,” the fire fighter said. “We just keep doing the impossible with what we have. Everybody down there (city hall) looks at firemen and say, ‘What are they doing?’ Well, we’re here when we’re needed. That’s what we’re doing.”

Randy Osborne, 51, an acting captain at Station 16, said he was aware of the frustration the anonymous fireman expressed. Osborne said firefighters are used to fighting so others can survive. He said they are not used to fighting for the survival of their jobs.

“Since we are stretched so thin I don’t see how we can survive any cuts,” Osborne said. “Any cuts out here will result in even longer response times.”

Tony Ardis, president of Firefighters Local 50, said his men’s fears are justified.

“Any time you run into a deficit we’re concerned. People in North Peoria should be  as well. It’s no secret North Peoria is under-served,” Ardis said.

“The people in North Peoria have to ask themselves if they can live with fire protection the way it is now in North Peoria. If they answer yes, they then need to ask themselves, ‘How long?’”

Editor’s note: In the end, the council passed a budget last month without drastic cuts to the fire department.

9. Retiring guy

It was 2:15 a.m. Jan. 23, 1983. Mike Morrow manned a fire hose at an intense fire in the 700 block of North Main.

Morrow’s partner on that line was Capt. Vernon “Butch” Gudat.

Well above the two men on the ground was a firefighter manning a line in an aerial truck.

Without warning, the wall Morrow and Gudat were hosing down collapsed. Both men were buried under burning debris.

The firefighter in the aerial truck rained water down on the two men and kept his eye on their location to direct rescuers.

Morrow awoke in the hospital with a severe concussion, broken bones and joint damage, but alive.

Gudat was not so lucky. The fire claimed his life.

Morrow spent six months recuperating from his injuries. At some point during that time he realized something.

“I suddenly went from a point where I said, ‘This is a great job,’ to a point where I said, “This is my calling.”

Morrow said, in October, he realized then he was living The American Dream.

Morrow, a North Peorian, retired Oct. 19 with 30 years, five months and 12 days of service with the fire department behind him. He retired as a battalion chief.

Morrow said after Gudat’s death he walked around for years with survivor’s guilt.

Since that night more than a quarter century ago, Morrow said, he has thought about The American Dream.

“To me The American Dream is that no matter who you are you have the opportunity to be, and, to do whatever you want to do,” he said.

“I have lived The American Dream,” Morrow said. “The reason I feel that way is I have had a long and successful career with the fire department. I have a wife, kids and 10 grand kids. To complete a career I loved and now have time with the family is a dream.”

Morrow said his definition of The American Dream has not changed over the years.

“For me, it has never been about money. It was about following what was in your heart,” he said. “You and your dream should never be limited by anything.”

10. Lights out

“As you raise a glass of cheer Friday to celebrate the weekend, consider that 92 years ago — Jan. 16, 1917 — Peorians were already on the precipice of experiencing that great failed experiment called Prohibition,” Peoria historian Norm Kelly said in January.

“Wait,” you say, “Prohibition did not start until Jan. 16, 1920.”

Kelly agreed, but said, “Believe me when I tell you that by the time Jan. 16, 1920, rolled around, folks in Peoria considered Prohibition old hat.”

The beginning of 1917, he said, was a wonderful time to be living in Peoria.

“Peoria was the place to be,” Kelly said.

“But, that all changed shortly after America declared war on Germany April 6, 1917.”

Peoria — which was the Alcohol Capital of the World — was among the first to feel the wrath of the nation’s politically connected Temperance Movement.

“Men of German descent owned most of the breweries in America, which made them an easy target because of the anti-German feelings in America,” Kelly said.

The Lever Act became law  Aug. 10, 1917. The distilleries and breweries were forced to shut down by Sept. 19, 1917.

The Wartime Prohibition Act passed Nov. 21, 1918 had teeth.

The next shoe — the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition and the Volstead Act allowing enforcement of Prohibition — became law.

“Surely peace and prosperity would follow. Wrong! What followed were 13 years of the most violent, lawless years in America’s history,” Kelly said.

It was the start of the most infamous period in Peoria’s history — a period during which a Life magazine article on Peoria was titled, “As wide open as the gates of Hell.”

“Peoria is a long way from that type of reputation today, but we can drown any sorrow about that legally in all the booze we want today,” Kelly said.