Runnels County 2020 review

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register

To say that 2020 was the most eventful year in news would be an understatement. From Runnels County to the world, the year was chock full of surprises, both good and bad.

The year started with big events in Ballinger, when city manager Tommy Turney was fired on January 6, in a 3-2 city council vote led by then-newly elected mayor Dawni Seymore. Turney's termination was immediately followed by the resignations of council members Bob McDaniel and Jason Gore, who both walked out of the meeting. That was followed by the resignation of councilwoman Kristi Goetz on March 3.

A new city manager, Buck LaQuey was hired to replace Turney. It was revealed, after LaQuey was hired, that he brought baggage of his own to the job, primarily in the form of previous sexual harassment lawsuits filed against him, and settled, during his previous employment in Grimes County. LaQuey's responses to citizens during council meetings left many people angered and confused.

It didn't take LaQuey long to make ripples in Ballinger when he demoted Street Department supervisor Barrett Smith. This, after Smith had helped the city sell off some equipment to try and address the financial woes that had befallen the city. A week later LaQuey fired Smith. When Smith was a supervisor, his termination would have had to go to the council, but after being demoted, LaQuey had the power to terminate him. Smith's brother, Jeff Smith, who is the general manager of KRUN radio, had been appointed to replace Gore on the council in January. Smith's termination was supported by mayor Dawni Seymore and two members of the council. Eventually, LaQuey left the position after a significant amount of criticism and blow-back from citizens. Jeff Smith resigned from the council in May.

The city council managed to find a new city manager in the form of Sweetwater Police Chief Brian Frieda. July 1, was Frieda's first day on the job. Since he has been appointed, Frieda has helped to completely reorganize the city's finances and brought an air of optimism and hope to the city's residents.

Brian Frieda was hired as Ballinger's new city manager. He began working on July 1st.

March saw Winters have their first homicide in over a decade. The murder was a family violence situation. The suspect was arrested shortly after the murder and booked into the Runnels County jail. He's since been released on bond.

COVID-19 struck in the midst of all of this, on January 21, when the first case was confirmed in Washington State by the CDC. Within the span of a few weeks, events from concerts to high school, college and professional sports seasons had been cancelled. Cases spread like wildfire throughout every nation on the planet. Soon, communities were divided between the "maskers" and the "no masks" supporters as local venues were shuttered by governors across the nation. Restaurants and other businesses closed as the economy took a dreadful hit that will require years to recover from.

Communities across the nation were suffering from anxiety and uncertainty about their future, when, on May 25, Minneapolis resident George Floyd died while being apprehended by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Video captured the death of Floyd, an African-American, who died while Chauvin knelt on his neck, ignoring Floyd's pleas for help. This started nation-wide riots in communities big and small. Police departments across the country had programs de-funded, including the Austin Police Department which saw the Austin City Council defund the police by over $120M. Texas governor Greg Abbott has made statements that the state will look to take over the operation of the Austin Police Department and fund it, as the state threatens to withhold $120M in property taxes from the city.

The protests soon turned into riots and social distancing, which had become the norm during the COVID outbreak, was soon ignored as tens of thousands of people protested and rioted due to Floyd's death. Black Lives Matter became the rallying cry of protestors who accused police departments across the board of racial injustice. The mantle was taken up by universities and professional sports teams, who advertised for racial justice throughout their venues and in commercials during their games.

In the midst of the nationwide crisis, the Ballinger City Council appointed BISD educator Ken Manley to replace Smith on the council. Ryan Lange was appointed to fill in the seat vacated by McDaniel. Ballinger businessman Mike Riley filled Goetz's seat, giving the council 3 new members. Eventually, all 3 would enter the November 2020 election, with Ballinger Printing Owner Steve Gray winning against Riley to take over SMD4. Lange and Manley would win their respective elections.

In June 2020, two Runnels County jailers, Alexander Govia Harrison and Cary Lamont Hubbard, were arrested and charged with having sex with female inmates.

During all of this, Winters and the neighboring areas were experiencing a string of burglaries that have yet to be solved. Residents in Winters formed a Neighborhood Watch group to share information as the police and sheriff admitted that they didn't have any suspects in the series of burglaries. There was a momentarily lull in the burglaries, but it was brief and the burglaries started up again a few weeks before Christmas. Runnels County Sheriff Carl Squyres requested help from the Texas Rangers. The investigation is presently on-going.

The county saw its shares of the usual summer wildfires that were fueled by the lack of spring rains. The Ballinger Fire Dept, Winters VFD, Wingate VFD, Miles, VFD, Rowena VFD, Talpa VFD and others stayed busy saving homes and people from the fires that burned several thousand acres of land. The Talpa VFD lost one of their 5-ton trucks when it had a blowout and was burned up by the fire that they were fighting at the time.

Longtime United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020. President Donald Trump appointed Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg. After the conclusion of the confirmation hearings Barrett took the oath on October 27, 2020.

In Winters, quarterback Alex Salas was named Homecoming King while Querstin Lara was named Homecoming King.

High School football provided a distraction from the troubles of the world. Accommodations had to made to adhere to Governor Abbott's COVID restrictions. In spite of it all, fans showed up at the games as all 3 Runnels County teams made it to the playoffs. The Ballinger Bearcats had started the season ranked #12 in the state, garnering attention from media outlets across Texas. Doubts were immediately cast when star Bradyn Bowman went down with a devastating knee injury in a scrimmage against Anson, followed by starting quarterback Tyler Vaughn going down with a shoulder injury in the 20-14 win against powerhouse Jim Ned. In spite of those challenges, the Bearcats found a way to prevail.

The flags usher in the 2nd half of play as Ballinger hosted the Bangs Dragos.

The Bearcats went 10-1 during the regular season, only losing to rival Llano, 34-0. The reason that the Bearcats played an 11-game regular season was due to COVID. Following Ballinger's bye week, the Brady Bulldogs forfeited their game against the Bearcats due to COVID. Wanting to keep his team sharp and not settle for a two-week layoff, Ballinger head coach and athletic director Chuck Lipsey found a game up in the panhandle against Sunray. The Bearcats soundly handled the Sunray Bobcats, 46-12.

Ballinger's opening-round playoff game against Odessa's Compass Academy was forfeited by Compass Academy due to the COVID pandemic. Ballinger's next game was against a powerful Spearman Lynx team, that ended up defeating Ballinger, 35-7.

The Olfen Mustangs won their first football game in program history on November 5, a 55-0 defeat of the TLCA (Abilene) Eagles.

The Miles Homecoming Court (L-R): Kinsley Riddle, Marissa Kalina, Hailey Fernandez, Lexi Ann Chatham, Katelynn Graves, Colin Steward, Parker Bryland, Brayden Dunlap, Brandon Rodriguez and Kyle Vahlenkamp.

Miles ISD had their first ever Service Day, where the students and faculty members went out into the community and performed community service projects from cleaning the cemetery to cleaning up lawns of elderly residents. The students also cleared out the debris from the community garden and helped clean and sanitize the library.

Miles High School students used a dump trailer to collect limbs and undergrowth from the Miles cemetery as part of the Miles High School Service Day.

In the midst of all of this, the Winters Dovefest found success, making due the best that they could with the restrictions placed on events by COVID. Their silent auction became an online auction and their BBQ lunch was served as to-go, only. The event raised thousands of dollars for Winters Gives and local charities.

Miles, likewise, found success with their annual Sausage Festival. The Ballinger Gun Show was incredibly successful, with the Ballinger Rotary taking in thousands of dollars what will go to help local charities and groups. The Ballinger Hunters Appreciation Dinner was also successful, giving a boost the the Ballinger Chamber of Commerce that had been trying to find ways to help local merchants severely affected by COVID. 

The Miles Cotton Fest was a victim of the viral pandemic, forced to cancel due to COVID-related restrictions.

The Ballinger food pantry drastically altered their operations, moving to a once-a-month food box distribution in cooperation with the Abilene Food Bank.

Ballinger lost a much beloved member of the community when Father Hugh Wade passed away due to a stroke on October 16.

Father Hugh Wade

It would be difficult to find someone in Ballinger whose life wasn't touched in some way by St. Mary Star of the Sea's retired priest, Father Hugh Wade. From his work with the Ballinger Ministerial Alliance to guiding his parish and their missions to help others over the years, Wade was a central figure in "doing for others."

Father Wade was ordained over 40 years ago, serving in the Vietnam war, both as a soldier and a chaplain. He continued his service until 1996, when he retired from the service and was assigned to St. Mary Star of the Sea in Ballinger.

The Hall in Rowena was taken on by new management, including Jeff and Barrett Smith. The venue became a BYOB dance hall with live music. Their events have proven to be popular during a time when people are looking for places to go to get a break from the bleak virus news and politics that dominate news casts 24/7. Hundreds have shown up at times to enjoy the live music, dancing and cold beverages. The venue provides a sense of community during a time when people are feeling disconnected from the rest of society due to quarantines. The Hall will have a popular live band. 12 Miles, performing on New Year's Eve to welcome in 2021.

A horror movie was filmed in Ballinger, Rowena, Paint Rock and Water Valley. The movie, "Country Club," is about a club-wielding killer dressed in overalls, a plaid shirt, boots and wearing a teddy bear head who goes around thumping his unfortunate victims. The movie is backed by Hollywood filmmaker and horror icon, George C. Romero (son of George A. Romero). Filming wrapped in November with the movie expected to be released around March 2021.

Declan Wells poses for a photo with Frank Castle, aka "Ricky."

The Humane Society of Ballinger found homes for some of their canine and feline residents from Pennsylvania to Canada, proving that humanity can prevail when resolve, determination and passion come together for a cause. The Humane Society continues to transport their four-legged friends to new homes across the nation, their passion and vehicles fueled by generous donations from the residents of Runnels County. Many of their fur babies received the best possible Christmas gift: A forever home.

November saw president-elect Joe Biden winning the POTUS election, defeating President Trump, 306 Electoral votes to President Trump's 232. The now-common post-election magniloquence wrapped around accusations of election fraud and the usual allegations of various conspiracies have filled the news for weeks, ad nauseum.

Brisket, ribs and chicken wait to go into the box for the judges.

But, there was good news for the county throughout 2020. The local BBQ cook off events were successful; Students and faculty adapted to changes and distance learning at the school districts in Runnels County; Homecoming kings and queens, as well as courts, were named; A non-profit was formed to restore the 1925 jail; Ballinger's Hallow-fest was successful; The sheriff's toy drive proved that not even a virus pandemic can't slow the goodwill of county residents toward those less fortunate. The Coal Burnin' Toy Drive Cook Off, formed by Tony and Jennifer Flores, filled the county with the Christmas spirit. Almost 300 families benefited from Runnels County Sheriff Carl Squyers' toy drive.

The contestants were in the Christmas spirit as they donated toys for the Coal Burnin' Toy Drive BBQ Cook-off. Several bicycles as well as dozens of other toys were donated to the Runnels County Sheriff's Department annual toy drive.

The toy drive was, perhaps, the most positive way to finish off a tumultuous 2020 that left many families mourning the passing of loved ones due to the virus as we all continue to try and figure out a path through the 2020 madness. In 2021, there will be the usual challenges and turmoil, successes and failures, births and deaths, but humanity is a race, stronger together, not just merely a group of individuals inhabiting the same rock soaring through space.

Tomorrow is more than just a new day, it's a new year, a new dawn, a new hope, a new opportunity for us to all overcome adversity, put differences aside, become better people and find strength in each other. Here's to a new year, old friends and enduring hope.

Happy New Year from The Runnels County Register!