The Top 10 ... err, 2 ... Stories of 2020
At a minute before 10 on Thursday morning — just as those of us working from home headed from the recliner to the kitchen for the day’s first coffee break — a magnitude-2.1 earthquake rumbled softly 3.2 miles east-northeast of Medford.
According to the temblor-trackers at volcanodiscovery.com, it was the 643rd — and final — quake of 2020 to hit somewhere in Oregon and the 12th reported seismic activity registered in Jackson County.
If you’re neither shaken nor stirred by the earth-shattering news that 643 earthquakes struck these parts over the past year, it’s understandable. For one thing, the total was down from the 769 that hit the state in 2019.
And, of course, to paraphrase John Lennon who himself was paraphrasing Allen Saunders earthquakes are what happens when we’re busy with more immediate issues.
Media outlets — faced with the final pages of the calendar and holiday vacation requests — traditionally have fallen back on Ten This or Best Of That stories to sum up the previous (in this case) 366 days in attempts to fill time and/or space although not necessarily in that order.
Undertaking such a task for a Southern Oregon year destined to be lumped together with Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” and Rowling’s “He Who Shall Not Be Named” seems a fool’s errand.
Thus enjoined, off we go.
Our Top Ten Stories list for 2020 starts with No. 1 and ends with No. 2.
Depending on your preference, they are ranked either
1. The devastating COVID-19 pandemic
2. The devastating Almeda and South Obenchain fires
1. The devastating Almeda and South Obenchain fires
2. The devastating COVID-19 pandemic
As laid bare by the Mail Tribune’s eight-part series, “2020 Hindsight,” there was not a single aspect of Rogue Valley life that wasn’t hit financially, culturally, systemically and/or personally by the impact of the twin disasters the fallout from which will consume our region for months, if not years, to come.
And while it is our oldest residents that have been the most affected by COVID-19, it has been the children who have suffered through imposed isolation.
“She got incredibly emotional, not about the academic side of things but about the lack of social interaction that her kids have been able to experience since March of 2020,” Medford schools Superintendent Brett Champion said of a recent phone call with a parent.
“That is something I have heard over and over, whether it is just a sadness that our kids have felt or if it has moved into depression and eating disorders and other really challenging mental and emotional crises that our kids are experiencing.”
Politics and ripple effects
If COVID-19 and the fires were two of the three heads of Cerberus keeping us from putting the hell of the past year in the rearview mirror, than the third would be the deepening political and cultural divisions that came to a climax in the 2020 election — which itself seemed to begin as soon as the last votes were counted in 2016, making it a multi-year melodrama as opposed to a single-season series.
In January, President Donald Trump faced eviction from the White House ... as his impeachment by the House of Representatives headed for certain failure in the Senate.
In December, President Donald Trump faced eviction from the White House ... as his loss in the popular vote and Electoral College has been challenged to no avail through the courts and across social media.
Trump’s influence over the style and nature of debate over national issues was felt locally. His wavering stances regarding the seriousness of the pandemic was echoed by members of the county Board of Commissioners — who not only protested the imposition of restrictions put in place by Gov. Kate Brown to flatten the curve of the spreading virus, but ultimately declined to endorse issuing a statement in support of taking precautionary measures.
Local candidates in May’s primary and November’s general election hurled accusations of campaign shenanigans and misrepresentation of views. Mirroring the national tone, Republicans were judged by how closely they aligned themselves with Trump; Democrats were said to be leading us down the road to socialism.
Even in the aftermath of the fires, as unity was the central theme, debates smoldered over forest management practices and how to address the rebuilding of housing in Talent and Phoenix.
All three of these crises — the fires, the coronavirus and the political tribal warfare — have sent ripple effects throughout Southern Oregon, unforeseen consequences that have manifested themselves to the very core of how we conduct our lives.
We have seen extraordinary acts of bravery, volunteerism and compassion, and we have seen the hoarding of paper products, the politicalization of wearing masks and the super-spreading of disinformation ... even as our senior care facilities are the latest front lines for COVID-19 outbreaks.
Confronting the racial divide
In the early morning hours of Nov. 23, the ripple effect from the fires of September added another layer of tragedy.
A young Black man, 19-year-old Aidan Ellison — out of a job after the flames destroyed a fast-food restaurant — was shot to death in the parking lot of the Ashland hotel where he was living by a 47-year-old white man — also living at the hotel after his home burned down in the same fire — following a dispute over loud music.
The killing added local names and faces to the acts of racial injustice that marked 2020, but seemed as though they only occurred a million miles away.
Ashland, with its reputation as a liberal, progressive bubble in a conservative county, became an unlikely epicenter for a national debate although not immune to its impact.
In late August, a makeshift memorial erected in the city to remember the names of Black victims of police action such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor was torn down under the cover of night — only to be restored by volunteers the following day.
Within a few days, a Rogue River event organized by the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity — after several forced changes in venue and itinerary — offered stories of the Black experience locally in a series of testimonies, although many were drowned out by protesters using loud speakers and car and boat engines.
In November, as rallies were held calling for racial understanding and unity in the wake her son’s killing, Ellison’s mother talked about the struggle to be true to oneself despite being in a distinct demographic minority.
“There are two rules here: smile and be whitewashed,” Andrea Wofford told Jefferson Public Radio. “Because you can’t dance. You can’t have your music. You have to talk a certain way because no one understands what you’re saying and you have to recreate your whole self.
“And it angered him, it angered him so much, that he could not be who he was but everybody else could. And if you don’t submit here, you’re a problem. You’re a problem.”
While the legal process continues against the shooter, Robert Keegan, resolution finally came in the case of another senseless death with Ashland ties and racist overtones.
On June 24, in a sentencing delayed multiple times by COVID-19 protocols, Jeremy Christian was ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of release, for the 2017 stabbing murder of two men — including Taliesin Namkai-Meche of Ashland — on a public transit train in Portland.
Namkai-Meche, Ricky Best and Michah Fletcher (who was wounded in the attack) had interceded when Christian racially harassed two teenage girls (one Black and one wearing a hijab) in what were found to be hate crimes.
The sentencing, said Namai-Meche’s mother, was another touchstone in what she called a devastating three years of grief.
“The sentiment of everyone (at sentencing), on a personal level was that we lost our loved ones,” Asha Deliverance told the Ashland Tidings, “On a societal level, it was extreme violence that caused many people to suffer, and we need to erase the racism and bigotry at the core of it.”
Yes to a pool, no to a jail
The ripple effects of the all-encompassing challenges posed by the pandemic and the fires washed over every decision large and small faced by Rogue Valley residents ultimately shaping how choices were made at the ballot box.
Already considered an unlikely candidate for approval because of its effect on tax rates and a perceived lack of emphasis on issues related to mental health, plans for a new, larger Jackson County Jail were soundly defeated in May by a vote of almost 3-to-1 as the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic began to make itself known.
“I think it’s pretty clear this is not something people are ready for or can afford right now,” Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler said after the defeat. “We’ll keep doing our best and see how we can best use the facility we have.”
Medford voters, however, were much more favorable to voting in favor of a long-proposed $60 million aquatic and sports complex on 58 acres of land bequeathed in 2003 by millionaire Wes Howard to help local children.
City and business leaders believe the park will become a regional draw in line with the baseball, softball and soccer fields at U.S. Cellular Community Park, which has generated $110 million since it opened.
Major projects were not the focus in the general election in November, however, as local and state leadership roles were at stake after a trio of retirements.
After hotly contested and sometimes contentious races, new mayors — Randy Sparacino and Julie Akins — were elected to serve in the vacated seats in Medford and Ashland, respectively.
Ashland also voted to amend its city charter and create a position of city manager, who would have the highest level of administrative authority of city government — taking away some of the duties previously the purview of the mayor.
In fire-ravaged Phoenix, meanwhile, former City Council member Terry Baker — who had resigned in May citing, among other matters, the management approach of Mayor Chris Luz — ousted the incumbent.
With a massive job ahead as Phoenix works to emerge from the Almeda fire, Baker called for unity.
“My sincerest hope,” he said on election night, “is we can come together as a community of people who care about each other ... regardless of our political views.
Luz echoed the sentiments.
“I wish the City Council and Terry Baker all the best in dealing with the fire,” he said after the result of the vote was clear. “If I can help at all, I’ll step in to help,”
Our man in D.C., our wolf in absentia
The other major political retirement was that of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican congressman from Hood River who served Southern Oregon as part of his sprawling Second Congressional District for 11 terms, saying “I’d long ago decided I didn’t want to get voted out or carried out.”
Walden, who found himself branded a “RINO” in the eyes of President Trump and some of his supporters for recognizing the presidential victory of Joe Biden despite predominantly siding with Trump over the past four years, was known locally for his strong support of the continuing needs of military veterans and their families and the need for an air tanker base to remain in Medford.
He will be succeeded by state legislator Cliff Bentz, a fellow Republican who sailed to victory after winning a historic, and sometimes histrionic, 11-candidate primary.
“I’ve had a great run, and I’m not one of those cranky, grumpy members leaving in disgust,” Walden told reporters. “Democracy was meant to be messy and loud, and I think we’d all admit there have been times when it’s louder and messier than any of us wanted or liked, but it still works.”
A departure of a different sort was the mystery of what happened to another famed leader who controlled a great swath of Southern Oregon.
OR-7, the legendary, oft-wandering gray wolf who became leader of the livestock-killing Rogue Pack, went off the grid for good in October of 2019 then was declared dead in April at the age of 11.
From his seemingly endless search for a mate, to the sometimes byzantine routes he traveled through Oregon and that State That Shall Remain Nameless to the south, OR-7’s story grew into the stuff of legend around the world.
It was shared through social media, books were written, a documentary film produced even bumper stickers in 2012 called for him to be president.
Derek Broman, carnivore and furbearer coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Mail Tribune in April that being unable to verify the wolf’s death was a fitting coda to his legacy.
“It plays into that narrative that OR-7 simply vanishes,” Broman said. “That’s a more fairy-tale ending than if we had proof of his death.”
Of course, dozens of more stories of interest occurred, continued or were developing as those 663 earthquakes rattled harmlessly in the background.
n A delivery-service driver from Roseburg was arrested and charged with multiple counts of shooting at drivers along Interstate 5 in Jackson and Josephine counties from the cab of his truck from May until his arrest in August. Two were injured, neither seriously, after being shot with the suspect’s 45-caliber weapon.
n Jackson County continued to lead the state in marijuana and hemp cultivation, although acreage numbers were down. The fires hurt the crops, but the pandemic spurred skyrocketing sales of pot and alcohol across the region. Local marijuana growers faced a difficult year as the economic downturn and unrealistic goals weeded out budding businesses, while actor Jim Belushi’s farm outside Eagle Point became the focus of a reality television series.
n Reality television took on a more sinister subject when NBC’s “Dateline” series presented “A Killer Role” — the story of Aisling Tucker Moore-Reed, the Rogue Valley author, journalist and blogger convicted in the manslaughter killing of her uncle. It was originally scheduled to air in October, but was pre-empted by ripple effect President Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19. The movie she starred in, a horror movie called “From the Dark” shot at the Oregon Caves without the filmmakers knowing of her legal issues, premiered at the Varsity Theatre in Ashland in November.
n Finally, in case everything going on wanted you to pack up and leave — why bother, as a move was afoot simply to relocate Southern Oregon. Initiative signatures still are being collected to support a plan that would make 19 Oregon counties, including ours, as well as some in Washington and The Scottish State part of something called Greater Idaho ... even though it’s not yet clear whether Idaho wants the company.
Which, in a phrase we wish would go away, just might be the most 2020 thing ever.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org