Remembering a year to forget
As the year’s final seconds tick off the clock Thursday night, many in Marion County will breathe a still-mask-covered sigh of relief for the passing of what may have been its worst year in collective memory.
COVID-19 quarantined thousands of residents, sickened hundreds of others, claimed an ever-increasing number of lives, and dominated headlines unlike any issue in recent years.
Still, other topics also were in the news in 2020. Here’s a rundown on the top topics, based on data for the most-read news stories this year:
Among the 500 most-read stories in the Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal, and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin, COVID-19 figured in more than a third of them.
It also accounted for the single most-read story of the year — a July account of the City of Marion enacting a mask mandate after Marion County refused to go along with a statewide mandate.
Closure of barber shops and beauty salons (reported May 20), a spike in orders for school lunches (also May 20), a COVID case at St. Luke Living Center (Oct. 28), and school closures (Nov. 11) were among seven COVID-19 stories in the top 20 individual news items for the year.
Overall, COVID accounted for 46 of the top 100 stories, including many breaking-news updates providing the latest information on numbers of deaths and cases.
Other top stories, by overall topic:
2. Dianne Novak
A distant second on the list of top topics for 2020 were various investigations about and allegations made by controversial county commissioner Dianne Novak.
Novak figured prominently in 11 of the 500 most-read stories, including an account May 3 of how she diverted subpoenaed emails about wind farm matters to a private email account. That story was the third most-read individual news item of 2020.
Other stories about Novak included her defeat in a primary election (Aug. 5), her anger over reappointment of a zoning board member she had opposed (Jan. 22), and her complaints against this newspaper (Nov. 25).
3. Inmate suicide
Jailers neglecting for more than 36 hours to confiscate shoelaces from an inmate known to have been suicidal was the third biggest topic of 2020, with four stories in the top 500.
A state investigation of inmate Julie Starks’ death was the No. 1 story Dec. 9 and the fifth most-read individual story of 2020.
Other stories in the top 500 included allegations reported Dec. 23 about a jailer having taunted Starks in the hours before her death and an earlier arrest of Starks and a companion after a police standoff, reported July 1.
4. Bicycle fatality
A semi running over and killing teenage bicyclist Trevor Wullenweber at Ash and D Sts. in Hillsboro dominated headlines June 24 and was the year’s second most-read individual story.
A follow-up the next week about the 13-year-old visitor from Milford also made the top 500 stories of the year.
5. Wind farm
Last year’s No. 1 topic finished fifth this year with eight stories in the top 500.
The top story in this group was an account April 22 of how the tables were turned on wind farm opponent Randy Eitzen when developer Expedition Wind filed a countersuit against him and six others seeking $35 million.
Settlement of that case and the Eitzen-led original suit against Expedition cost the county more than $20,000 in legal fees (Sept. 30).
A related matter, involving wind farm opponent Tom Britain confronting the county’s zoning administrator in Florence, continued to make headlines Nov. 18.
6. Manhunt for roofer
More than a dozen officers from the county, three cities, the highway patrol, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the fish and wildlife service searched in vain for an itinerant roofer working near Aulne who was wanted in connection with a Colorado homicide.
Only one of two suspects sought in the search, reported May 20 as the year’s fourth most-read individual story, was captured.
7. Mike Beneke
Feedlot operator and former restaurateur Mike Beneke, who defeated Novak in the August county commissioner primary before losing to independent David Mueller in November, accounted for three of the stories in the top 500.
The most-read of these was an account Nov. 18 of his calling Marion city administrator Roger Holter a liar for rescinding a $10,000 COVID relief grant he sought to reopen his restaurant, Edward’s, at US-56 and Timber Rd.
Beneke also was involved in an altercation, reported Aug. 5, with restaurant patron Lloyd Meier. No charges were filed after Beneke allegedly injured Meier’s back while ejecting him from Edward’s for not following social- distancing standards.
8. Power failures
Continued difficulties with Marion’s power grid, some of them related to construction of a new transfer station for county trash, were the eighth biggest topic of the year, with six stories in the top 500.
Included were stories June 10, July 8, and July 15 about the impact power failures were having on local businesses.
9. Lincolnville ‘castle’
A playhouse-size stone castle that stood for 90 years on the outskirts of Lincolnville was relocated to the Herington home of stonemason Larry Lawrenz, who said he planned to restore the longtime US-77 landmark.
Our initial coverage of the story May 13 was the seventh most popular individual story of the year, earning ninth place on the overall list of topics.
10. Museum and donation
Donation by 97-year-old Peabody farmer Melvin Larsen of a lifetime’s worth of items, some dating to the early 1900s, to Marion Historical Museum was the 18th ranked individual story, published May 20.
Museum director Teresa Mills’ death at age 67 after a short, sudden illness a month earlier also ranked in the top 500.
11. Heated dock
The county’s plans to replace a heated fishing dock at Marion County Lake was the 21st most-read individual story of the year May 13.
Good news turned to bad when it was reported Oct. 7 that Ben’s Boat Docks, hired to complete the project, had been dodging officials curious why the dock was nowhere to be seen at the lake or at the company’s shop.
12. Missing patient
An unidentified patient at Westview Manor in Peabody was found alive, lying in a ditch four miles from the facility.
The story, similar to incidents reported at Westview in 2013 and 2016, was the eighth most-read individual news item of 2020 and the 12th most-read overall topic of the year.
13. Murder arrest
The arrest in Marion County of a 48-year-old man accused of killing a 28-year-old woman here six months earlier and of dumping her body in Sumner County was the 13th most-read topic of 2020.
Robert B. Mans Jr. met Shalan N. Gannon in drug recovery and allegedly killed her at a house on Narrow Rd. near the unincorporated town of Canada.
14. Hospital and clinic
Herington Hospital’s decision to open a clinic in Hillsboro may have violated state restrictions on providing services outside the hospital’s designated area, as was reported Dec. 16.
The hospital earlier was in the news April 22 for purchasing questionable COVID-19 tests.
15. Other crimes
Aside from those already mentioned a total of 31 other crime stories were among the 500 most-read items of the year.
- A report May 13 of sheriff’s deputies seizing a trailer filled with hand tools, power tools, welders, camping equipment other items stolen from “many, many, numerous burglaries and thefts,” as sheriff Rob Craft put it.
- Coverage Jan. 29 of former Peabody teacher Christopher J. Young, already convicted of sexually exploiting a student, being arrested on suspicion of violating a restraining order.
- A multi-county police chase, reported June 10, after which 28-year-old Wichita resident Rebekah D. Hurd was arrested with drugs and $1,000 in counterfeit currency allegedly in her possession.
- Former emergency manager Dan D’Albini agreeing to pay $460,083 and spend 30 days in jail after pleading no contest, as reported March 11, to charges of insurance fraud and interfering with law enforcement in connection with an arson fire at a home he owned near Salina.
- A 95-mph chase, reported Dec. 2, in which Coloradoan Christopher Medina eluded police for an hour before crashing his car near Lehigh after a chase that began in Geary County.
- Brian Grosse’s arrest, reported Sept. 23), after marijuana plants were noticed growing in his yard three doors down from Marion police chief Clinton Jeffrey’s residence.
- Peabody police officer Megan Chizek using a stun gun to end an armed confrontation with 43-year-old Mitchell W. McMillen over a dog, as reported Aug. 12.
- Jail visitor Rexana J. Siebert, 43, of rural Marion being jailed herself after defying orders not to attempt to visit a friend in jail, as reported June 10.
16. Other business stories
A total of 17 other stories about Marion County businesses made the top 500 this year, including:
- The closing of Dorothy’s Coffee House and Tea Room and Edward’s Café along with the opening of Café 256 in Marion (Sept. 9).
- Hillsboro’s former Alco building being purchased for unspecified reasons by a Nebraska developer of farm equipment supply stores (Oct. 21).
- Marion’s Historic Elgin Hotel initially backing off reports it was for sale (June 10) then confirming that it was listed for sale, along with Dorothy’s, by a Wichita real estate agent (Nov. 4).
- The neighboring Bowron Building being sold to a Wichita resident who plans to convert it into retail and living space (Aug. 26).
- The opening of 56 Express Tire and Service in the former Cardie Oil building in Marion’s industrial park (Aug. 26).
Traffic accidents and related incidents accounted for 13 of the 500 most-read stories of the year, including:
- A driver who died in his truck in a Barkman Honey parking lot in Hillsboro going unnoticed until nearly a day later (Aug. 12).
- An Oklahoma driver being trapped for more than an hour in a crumpled SUV after a four-vehicle accident on US-50 near Peabody (June 24).
- A pickup crashing into the front of Marion Assisted Living Center after John A. Ottensmeier, 37, of Marion allegedly was driving drunk (April 22).
- Severe injuries to a US-56 driver from Moundridge after his truck was hit by a pair of vehicles allegedly being raced by Tabor College athletes along Industrial Rd. on the east edge of Hillsboro (Nov. 4).
- A fatal accident in which a Gypsum man thought to have been experiencing health problems crashed his pickup into a train on K-15 near Durham (March 4).
18. Municipal government
Stories from various city councils accounted for 19 of the top 500 stories in 2020, including:
- Hillsboro trimming its budget by cutting contributions to employee health spending plans (May 20).
- Peabody worrying about lack of lifeguards at its city pool (May 13).
- Marion unsuccessfully, for the most part, seeking grants to pay for Elm St. and other erosion-related street repairs (May 20).
- A meet-and-greet with Florence mayor Bill Harris being deemed an illegal meeting (Jan. 15).
- The idea of razing a large memorial fountain in Marion’s Central Park and possibly adding a splash pad being quickly withdrawn (Aug. 12).
- Lost Springs ordering a cleanup (Nov. 4).
- Florence doubling its employees’ sick days (May 20).
- Marion running out of patience with what it termed Kevin W. Geren’s illegal dump site on S. Cedar St. (Dec. 16).
- The first house in Marion’s planned addition Coble St. addition starting construction (April 15).
19. County government
In addition to stories focusing on COVID, Novak, or the heated dock, county government figured in 15 additional stories in the top 500.
Among them were:
- Plans to hire a county administrator being discussed illegally in secret (Nov. 11).
- Commissioners criticizing emergency manager Randy Frank for spurning a request from a Hillsboro official to see the county’s emergency operations plan (Oct. 21).
- The county counselor warning that public comments by speaker Linda Peters blasting county engineer Brice Goebel at a county commission meeting were “‘inappropriate” (Feb. 26).
- The notion of adding long-term camping near residences at Marion County Lake proving controversial (Dec. 2).
- The county temporarily halting recycling because of rising costs (Jan. 29).
- Taxpayers facing sticker shock over bills that include a new tax for a combined Marion-Dickinson County extension district (Dec. 2).
- Political signs for commissioner Randy Dallke being found burning in a pile on a street near Dallke’s house (Aug. 5).
20. Features and oddities
Among other stories ranked in the top 500 in terms of readership this year were:
- Turkey vultures making a mess of Peabody (May 20).
- Marion native and Marine helicopter pilot Louis Holt taking an authorized detour to buzz his hometown (Jan. 15).
- Sheriff Rob Craft breaking his ankle and requiring surgery after stepping into a pile of gravel near 170th and Remington Rds. at the end of a brief chase (June 3).
- Wind farm construction worker John Bichelmeyer remodeling and adding unique décor to three Tampa homes (Nov. 11).
- Brokenhearted Burdick farmer Dan Peterson being aided by more than 20 neighbors after he was diagnosed with COVID-19 a day after the funeral of his wife, Linda, who died of cancer (Oct. 14).
- A pair of pigs who escaped their pen eluding police despite several multi-block chases on Marion’s north hill (Sept. 9).
- For the second time in two weeks, a Hillsboro ambulance crew getting stuck on muddy roads (Jan. 22).
- Ten-year-old Trevin King saving his 13-year-old brother, Levi, from a house fire on S. Ash St. in Hillsboro (June 17).