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The Gazette’s annual look back at the best and worst of the past year

By The Gazette

There’s a lot of national “news” we’d like to forget about 2013 — Obamacare debates, the “fiscal cliff,” Honey Boo Boo, twerking, “selfie” pics and state election ads on TV.
However, we could watch footage of Miley Cyrus and Honey Boo Boo snapping a selfie pic and twerking as they drove a car off the fiscal cliff over, and over and over. But, with our luck, Obamacare would cover their recovery and then they’d be back.
Locally, it was a year full of news more horrible than humorous, but we sorted through the rubble of 2013 to find a few gems, though some are admittedly flawed.
We polished them up and now present you The Gazette’s annual Editorial Awards, which last year we dubbed “The Mongos,” in honor of our frequent and mysterious “Readers’ Hotline” caller.
Here are our winners — the sarcastic, the silly and the serious — of the 2013 Mongos:

In 2013, we reported on one of the least newsworthy thefts ever, when someone stole a broken fire hydrant in Cana, for which we award ourselves the “Slow News Day” Award. Thankfully, some other criminals were more entertaining.

When a suspect caused what can only be described as mayhem in the stretch between Galax and Woodlawn, one citizen proved that he was not a person to mess with. Virginia State Police had an eventful time finding and arresting Dustin Lee Alley after an alleged carjacking that took place at Blue Ridge Tobacco in Galax resulted in a car crash, another attempted carjacking and a police chase on foot. Authorities said that after the suspect allegedly crashed the stolen vehicle, he spotted a stopped vehicle in the road and attempted to force out the 91-year-old male driver, only to wind up with the former security guard’s keys pressed into his throat. Eventually, the driver forced the intruder back out of the car, proving that his eligibility for a senior discount at Shoney’s doesn’t mean he can’t pack a punch. We salute the driver and award him our “Nonagenarian Chuck Norris Award” — which we will present from a safe distance.

It must have been the year when citizens had enough of crime. The “Carjacking? I Ain’t Got Time for That!” Award goes to a driver who kept calm and refused her carjacker’s demands. A man got into the car of a Hillsville restaurant patron and demanded a ride, but the driver instead drove to the drive-through and told the workers to call the police.

Often, criminals are their own worst enemies.
Our “Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?” Award goes to a Hillsville man who called police to report a break-in at his home. It’s what wasn’t missing that got him in trouble — like illegal drugs and moonshine, including hundreds of prescription painkillers, that police found when they went inside.

The “Fast & Curious” Award goes to criminals with unique taste in vehicles. One man was charged with drinking while driving a moped. (There’s no word on whether he was sober when he bought it.) And, a Baywood man had several items seized from his home in a drug investigation, including a go-cart.

A suspect arrested twice for the same crime gets the “Catch and Release” Award. After a magistrate initially refused to issue felony warrants against the suspect, police had to let the man go — then find and arrest him again later that day when another magistrate agreed to place the charges.

The “Redacted Development” Award, an empty manila folder, goes to the Small Business Development Center. Local officials often cite small business creation figures kept by the center, which claims to have counseled entrepreneurs in creating more than 1,000 jobs over the years. But, the public has to take them at their word because no solid proof has been released. If questioned about it, economic development officials will admit that the job numbers derive from an estimate in individual business plans before they get up and running, which are difficult to verify after the fact. So, like a questionable baseball stat, we’ll have to put an * next to that 1,000 until we see some evidence.

In provable job news, River North Correctional Center locked down around 340 positions locally, the biggest single jobs announcement in 2013. We began to wonder how long the un-funded state prison would remain on ice, and we were so captivated by the news of its opening that we grant it the “Shiv Me, I Must Be Dreaming” Award. Honorable mentions also go to the numerous small business owners who opened this year, the new screenprinting operation in Hillsville and the expansion of Virginia Produce.

One business idea in 2013 went up in smoke just days after it commenced. Customers lit no fire under the Hookah Hook-Up in Hillsville, the smoking lounge that attempted to draw from Middle Eastern culture. Apparently, it was all too much for locals to breathe in. The Gazette bestows the “Close, But No Cigar” Award for the creative thought and optimism behind this particular effort.

The “Stacked Deck” Award goes to the Grayson County Board of Supervisors for its new voting dynamic. After Glen Rosenbaum joined the board, he and like-minded members David Sexton and John Brewer have formed a majority to push through some controversial actions, such as repealing the zoning ordinance and disbanding the recreation advisory committee. With these three voting as a bloc, fellow supervisors Kenneth Belton and Brenda Sutherland don’t stand a chance. We’re betting this situation will make for some interesting times ahead.

In more positive news, Galax city government’s MVP of the Year has to be grants administrator Brenda Marrah. While budgets have stretched to accommodate the necessities over the past few years, the financial burden has been eased in Galax thanks to her work. In the three years she’s been with the city, Marrah has earned more than $5 million in grant money to benefit several city departments, including Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, the Galax Volunteer Fire Department, the Safe Routes to School Program and new water and sewer projects. For her efforts, we proudly bestow the “Rainmaker Award,” and we request that all of the money she brought in be converted to gold coins in a vault for everyone in the city to roll around in. (Hey, it looked fun when Scrooge McDuck did it!)

We can’t imagine what went through the officers’ minds when they were called to respond to an exploding toilet at a Vaughan-Bassett Furniture plant last year — Plant #2, no less. What was first reported as an explosive — a real “dirty bomb” — was nothing more than an electrical malfunction in the restroom. At first, the call had us wondering what they’re selling in the plant’s break room snack machines, and whether the choices should include more fiber. Officers were prepared for anything, with a response team that included state police backup and canine units from Virginia Tech and Bedford County, which were conveniently already in the area for training exercises. And for that, we present the “Golden Throne” Award for defusing the situation.

Galax motorists were driven mad when the city lowered speed limits on two heavily traveled roads by 10 mph. Some claimed it would cause more accidents, damage cars by wearing out brakes and make people late for work. They get the “Road Rage” Award for taking an off-ramp into over-reaction.

Buzzards and bugs and bears. Oh, my.
Last year, nature struck back with a vengeance.
Gypsy moths and kudzu bugs snacked on our plants; stink bugs invaded our homes; tree blight and fir fungus flourished; and escaped wild ponies stampeded through Independence. Maybe it was revenge for the person who duct-taped that poor cat.
We award the surviving humans the “Animal Apocalypse” Award. We’re predicting a full-on “Planet of the Apes” situation in 2014, so we hope our new monkey overlords will continue reading the newspaper. (Free bananas with a year’s subscription!)

But it’s bears that will likely take over. Bears were everywhere in 2013 — running wild on U.S. 58 in Galax, spotted frequently on the city’s west side and in Baywood. The “Furry Felon” Award goes to the bear that broke in to the Sutherland home and made off with cake icing and a casserole. He kept coming back — for seconds? — and had to be captured and relocated.

While bears stole our potluck dinner casseroles, swarms of black-winged menace circled overhead looking for a buffet of their own. Buzzards made Galax and Hillsville their home, becoming our “Most Terrifying Tourists.” Like many unwanted visitors, they decided to move in permanently. Now, to cater to these carrion-eaters, the city’s bed and breakfasts are converting to “nests and carcasses” establishments.
(Maybe Carroll County missed an opportunity by not more vigorously pursuing a wind turbine farm idea. With concerns about the giant blades’ danger to birds, we could have taken care of our buzzard problem.)

Floods swamped the Twin Counties, washing out roads and soaking basements; and windstorms sent shingles sailing.
Storms also closed the Beaver Dam Trail for most of 2013, Hillsville’s sole outdoor recreation opportunity. But, armed with piles of chopped-up asphalt, lumber and gumption, town officials found that planning and a lot of elbow grease could restore and improve the walking path. For their grit and determination not to be sandbagged by continuing trail problems, we give Hillsville the 2013 “Not a Total Washout” Award.

The Gazette’s most recognized face for nearly a half-century — our own “runner of ridges” and chaser of breaking news, Larry Chambers — earns the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Larry hadn’t been based out of our Galax offices since 1999 when he became general manager at our sister paper, The Declaration, but people associated him so closely with The Gazette that they still called here looking for him 14 years later.
After 47 years with Landmark Community Newspapers, having made many contributions to local reporting and earning many awards for his photography, Larry’s new course of action will involve hitting the links and spending time with family. We wish him the best.

The “What the... ?” Award for 2013 almost went to the concept to create a combination water park and foster home in Fries, but that paled in comparison to our oddest conspiracy theory of the year.
Some readers made connections between two seemingly innocent programs and a vast and shadowy conspiracy.
Twice this year, we received calls and e-mails from people who believed that two issues — The Crooked Road music trail’s plan to become a National Heritage area to secure federal grand money, and Galax Elementary’s “Safe Routes to School” project — were actually part of a United Nations conspiracy to take over the U.S. and force people to give the government their land, stop driving cars and engage in state-mandated physical fitness.
We’re heading to Food City to buy a roll of tinfoil with which to make hats that will keep the NSA satellites from scanning our brains.
Our favorite comment from this debate: the person who claimed that the lack of evidence of a conspiracy was all the proof you needed that the nefarious “Agenda 21” exists.
We will be delivering their awards via drones any day now.
There you have it. The year that was.
Congratulations (?) to all our winners.
You’re welcome.
Here’s hoping 2014 is just as wonderfully weird.

• Pete Bramley — Master Gardener and community volunteer

• Don Foster — founder of Blue Ridge Host and tourism promoter

• Audrey Hash Ham — musical mentor to countless children, renowned instrument maker, artisan, musician, teacher and champion of mountain music

• Velma Horton — Carroll County educator

• Sam Kinzer — local pastor

• Mike Maynard — former chairman of the Grayson County Board of Supervisors

• Frank Morris — former American Mirror Company executive

• Russell Nelson — wrecker operator, killed responding to a call on I-77

• John K. Pitcher — former “Skywatch” columnist, astronomer, Master Gardener and World War II veteran

• Ret. Lt. Col. Robert A. Steele — U.S. Air Force veteran and founder of local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter

• Ivan Taylor — former Hillsville mayor and community leader

• Mary Tidline — baker, craft maker and one of Galax’s longest-lived and beloved citizens, who died at age 105