By Opelika Observer Staff
Without a doubt, 2020 has been the most unusual year in Observer history. A year that started out with promise and vision quickly shifted to confusion, fear and panic for many. March started as any other March might have — with blue skies, blooming spring flowers and a booming economy. By the end of the month, people were hunkered down inside their homes, schools were closed and businesses across Lee County and the nation were shuttered.
The novel coronavirus spread across the world and brought with it new vocabulary that quickly became part of everyday speech. We learned that some businesses were considered essential while others were not. “Social distancing,” “remote learning” and “curbside pickup” became common.
Businesses either had to pivot and find new ways of bringing in revenue or risk closing for good, and sadly, some ended up closing. But others — like Mama Mocha’s — found new ways to do business. The coffee shop shifted to offering the popular “iced crack” coffee in half and full gallon sizes that were available only by a no-contact pickup.
School districts had mere days to learn how to manage remote learning for thousands of students and scrambled to ensure that students in rural areas had access to the internet. School buses were deployed with hot spots to some areas to provide access. Parents who were deemed essential workers struggled to find care for their now at-home children, while others, now unemployed, struggled with how to provide for their families.
Hospitals and intensive care units filled with patients, and medical personnel quickly saw shortages of important safety equipment like gowns, gloves and masks. The community answered the call for help and bought out fabric, sewing machines and other supplies and started making face coverings by the hundreds. Community members rallied to support healthcare workers and the sick. Meals were delivered to the hospital to feed staff, and cars filled the parking lots at dusk shining their lights towards the hospital in show of love and support. Hands were lifted up in prayer for the doctors, nurses and patients. EAMC’s Laura Grill was named as one of the top-five hospital administrators during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Auburn Engineering program joined the fight against the virus.
Nearly 5,000 Alabamians have died from COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health website, including 74 people from Lee County.
Nine months later, COVID-19 is still with us, and ICUs are still full or nearly full of people who are fighting to survive the virus. Masks have not only become common but mandated. Most businesses are open again, but many are still struggling.
However, in spite of all the difficulties related to COVID-19, Lee County has proven yet again that it is resilient and strong. Here is the Observer’s recap of 2020:
Front page news: Some of the biggest headlines from our front page during 2020 included the devastating news of the deaths of Medal of Honor recipient Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins and Lee County Commissioner Johnny Lawrence, both of whom died from COVID-19.
Other front page news included the heroic actions of Kounte Threadgill, who saved his siblings from a house fire, the announcement of Ali Rauch as the new Opelika Chamber of Commerce president, record-breaking figures from the city of Opelika’s building department, the installation of the Beauregard Memorial, Rusty Sowell being named the recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award, the groundbreaking for the new $12 Million Opelika Library and not one but two fights against granite quarries, one of which is still ongoing.
New retail businesses: While this list does not include every new business that opened in 2020, it does contain some of the ones featured in the Observer:
Five Below, Davis-Mann & Co., Koko’s Boutique, I’m that Mom, Loves Travel Stop, Well Red, Prewitt Pest Control, One-Stop Neighborhood Market, Robin’s Nest, Rock ‘N Roll Pinball, Willow Tree Boutique, 1010 Salon, America’s Thrift, The Tiny Closet and Z & Z Cigar Co.
Society and Entertainment: Straight from the Society, Food and Entertainment section were articles published about new restaurants such as:
Nu Tom Beaux, Pokemen and Takoyaki. The Irritable Bao opened its brick-and-mortar storefront, and Jim Bob’s on First Avenue opened under new ownership. Lucy’s bartender Neil Cooper was named Alabama’s 2020 Bartender of the Year.
Dani Nelson and Leif Espelund bought and reopened the Heritage House on Second Avenue. In Smiths Station the Jones Store and Museum received a historic designation, and the Ellen Show honored a Smiths Station family.
Schools & Learning: Schools saw big changes during 2020. The 2020-21 school year started with many students still learning at home via virtual learning or with a blend of in-person and remote learning. Temperature checks, near constant hand sanitizing and desks set six feet apart and shielded with plastic are not uncommon in this new school setting. Featured in the Observer this year were:
OCS Teachers of the Year: Breeana Boyd – Elementary Teacher of the Year and Morris Avenue Intermediate Teacher of the Year; Hannah Holladay – Secondary Teacher of the Year and Opelika High School Teacher of the Year
Two teachers in the ACS system, Kathryn Knorr, a teacher at Ogletree Elementary School and Jessica Bowlin from AHS were named as a finalists for Alabama Teacher of the Year.
Lee County Teachers of the Year
Auburn City Schools’ Tiger Mochas was selected as one of the first-ever recipients of the AlabamaWorks Innovator Awards.
The Sarah West Art Gallery created and distributed thousands of art boxes to local schools within the Lee County school system.
Alabama’s first STEM Preschool debuted in Auburn.
Jean Dean RIF discontinues services
OMS student Harrision Renfro was selected to attend the Presidential Inauguration.
Tragedy hit the Beulah schools when, Beulah educator David Darnell and his daughter Abigail were killed on Interstate 85 in April.
Sports: While nearly all spring sports were cancelled during the early months of COVID-19, summer and fall sports resumed with some new procedures and restrictions.
Former Auburn Football Coach Pat Dye passed away in June, and Head Coach Guz Malzahn was fired and replaced by Bryan Harsin. Opelika High School named Emanuel Brown as the new head basketball coach, and Opelika’s Jeff Hilyer was added to the Sports Officials Hall of Fame. Glenwood had an outstanding football season. An Opelika Middle School student and member of the Dawg Pound, Skyland Holstick, was the only student from Alabama selected to play in an international, all-star football game in February 2020 and was also selected for the academic, all-American bowl in December.
Politics: 2020 was a big year in politics, and even COVID-19 could not stop the political wheels from turning. Important local headlines this year included the election of four new city council members to the Opelika City Council and two new county commissioners. The former Lee County EMA director resigned in February, and Rita Smith was appointed the new director of the agency.
The police chiefs from both Auburn and Opelika retired, along with Jim Buston, Auburn’s city manager, Opelika’s fire chief Byron Prather, County Commissioner Sheila Eckman and long-time city council member Patsy Jones.
Former AU Football Head Coach Tommy Tuberville defeated Doug Jones in the senate race.
Opelika created the Youth Incarceration Prevention Program in 2020 and Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes was arrested and charged with ethics violations.
Marches, protests and rallies have been held throughout Lee County this year.
Anne Grady, Opelika’s first female-elected government official, passed away on June 14 and was honored by the Opelika City Council.
In other news: Several Lee County residents and former Lee Countians published books during this year, notably: Cody Foote (“Limericks, Lies and Lunacy”), Sid Mickle (“A Backwards Glance”), Paige and Josh Wetzel (“Beautifully Broken: An Unlikely Journey of Faith”), Amanda Dodson-Gremillion (“Just Buy Her a Dress and She’ll Be Fine”), Wade Bennett (“Fearless and True”) and Lea Robison (“Liar’s Bloodline”).
Observer news: The Observer also saw many changes, in true 2020 fashion. While we never stopped reporting the happenings of Lee County, we did close our office and worked remotely for six weeks during the shutdown phase of the pandemic. We saw a complete turnover of our staff, losing both Editor Morgan Bryce and staff reporter Natalie Anderson, but gaining Will Fairless, Hannah Lester and Wil Crews. Also, Rena Smith joined our marketing department. We published our first magazine, called Lee County Strong, as a tribute to the memory of those lost in the 2019 tornados and to honor those who survived and are still working to rebuild their lives.
Following Lee County Strong, we made the decision to launch Live Lee — and published two issues, plus two special editions this year.
In June, we won 11 awards in the Alabama Press Association Media Awards, and this fall we were honored to receive the Main Street Hero award as part of the 2020 Main Street Alabama Awards of Excellence. We were chosen out of thousands of entries to be the recipient of Google News Initiative Journalism Emergency Relief Funds with our proposal to give back to our community by offering small, local businesses free advertising for a period of time during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 30 businesses took advantage of this opportunity.
After more than 11 years on Eighth Street, the Observer recently relocated our offices to 207 North 3rd Street in Opelika. This is a temporary move. We are proud to announce that we will be returning to 8th Street in a new permanent location as owners of 223 S. 8th Street upon completion of the remodeling of the building. We are excited to invest not only in our future but in the growth and development of downtown Opelika.