01/01/10 — Elevated standards, fallen comrades: The most important stories of 2009

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Elevated standards, fallen comrades: The most important stories of 2009

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 1, 2010 11:37 AM

Many shed tears when news that an F-15E Strike Eagle had gone down in Afghanistan reached Goldsboro.

Others cringed the day hundreds of neglected dogs were brought to the Wayne County Fairgrounds for treatment after a "puppy mill" was raided outside Grantham.

Laughs were shared when Vice President Joe Biden lifted weights with several young airmen at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base after he doled out stimulus funds in Pikeville and Faison.

And tempers flared during debates between the county commissioners and its Planning Board.

The county school system became the focus of the nation -- even Hollywood -- when a school was caught allowing students to purchase better grades.

And Goldsboro High School made headlines when the NAACP state president called it an example of segregation.

The past 365 days in Wayne saw much unfold that will likely be remembered for years to come.

Here are the stories we believe left the biggest impact:

1. F-15E crash leaves two

SJAFB captains dead

336th Fighter Squadron Capts. Mark McDowell and Thomas Gramith died July 18 after their F-15E Strike Eagle went down in Afghanistan, and within hours of the incident, the news came home to Wayne County via a phone call to 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly from the desert.

As word spread, grieving began both on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and in the communities that surround it. And two days later, as Kelly was en route to oversee the dignified transfer of the officers' remains, a fund was being started for the families left behind.

Memorial services were held on and off base in the weeks that followed, and once the fallen airmen's squadron was home from the desert, a benefit concert was thrown in support of their comrades.

Gramith was buried in his home state, Minnesota, shortly after the crash, but his flying partner's family waited until the rest of the 336th was home to lay him to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Months later, an Accident Investigation Board convened by Air Combat Command determined that human error led to the fatal crash.

2. Vice President Joe Biden visits Wayne County

Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack arrived in Wayne County April 1 to announce stimulus funding of projects in Faison and Pikeville.

The dignitaries flew into Seymour Johnson Air Force Base about 11 a.m. and were greeted by Air Force officials, including 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly.

Biden and Vilsack spoke at the Goshen Medical Center in Faison first, as the center received more than $600,000 in stimulus money for improvements, and then in Pikeville, they announced funding to help build a new station for the Pikeville Volunteer Fire Department.

Biden's final stop put him back on Seymour Johnson, where he met with airmen and their families to wish them well on upcoming deployments and thank them for their service and sacrifices, before boarding Air Force Two and heading back to Washington.

3. Rosewood principal resigns because of cash for grades fundraiser

A fundraiser allowing students at Rosewood Middle School to receive extra grade credit was halted and the school's principal, Susie Shepherd, resigned after state, and national, media got wind of the fundraising plan: Selling 20 test points to students for $20.

The extra points could take a student from a "B" to an "A" on tests or from a failing grade to a passing one. The school's parent advisory council allegedly approached Ms. Shepherd with the idea of selling points because last year's candy sale had failed. She approved the fundraiser, saying it would not ultimately impact any student's final grade.

The effort would be based on donations -- $20 would buy two 10-point credits to be used on two tests of the student's choosing; $30 would buy test points and admission to a fifth-grade dance; for $60, the student would receive test points, the dance invitation and a pizza lunch shared with a friend; and for $75, students could also have pictures taken with the principal, vice principal and a homeroom teacher that would be posted on the school's bulletin board and Web site.

Mary Kay James was named Ms. Shepherd's replacement as principal.

4. H1N1 cases confirmed

A 4th Fighter Wing airman became the first confirmed case of H1N1 in Wayne County June 3 after test results from the USAFSAM Epidemiology Lab at Brooks City Base, Texas, reached Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Then, in August, Mount Olive College officials confirmed that the strain had reached their campus.

And by October, officials had reported H1N1 had hit Wayne County Public Schools. Later that month, vaccines began trickling into the county and in early November, more than 1,000 residents showed up at the Health Department for Wayne's first H1N1 clinic. Vaccines are still available and additional clinics have been held and will continue into 2010.

5. NAACP calls Wayne County Public Schools resegregated

On Dec. 1, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, state NAACP president, announced a complaint was being filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Office.

The group's claim: Wayne County Public Schools is operating a school district that defies the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate of desegregation. Barber said the NAACP will file a lawsuit to force the system to restructure its district lines to alleviate the problem caused by the Goldsboro High School district, which is more than 90 percent black. The NAACP alleged "gross disparities" between poor children in the predominantly "white districts" as compared to the Goldsboro "black district" -- in such areas as test scores, suspensions and graduation rates.

The complaint was filed, Barber said, on behalf of all children assigned to the Goldsboro attendance district and any children in the district "who are deprived of constitutional education by the policies and practices of the Wayne County School Board" that have directly and indirectly caused resegregation and other practices that have adversely impacted the quality of education.

Barber has since declined comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, and would not discuss legal strategies except to say that the group will continue meeting with its attorneys and organizers.

6. Puppy mill raided near Grantham, hundreds of dogs rescued

A months-long puppy mill investigation by Wayne County Animal Control came to a head on Feb. 6 when county officials, sheriff's deputies and Humane Society of the United States workers entered Thornton Kennel on Westbrook Church Road near the Wayne-Sampson County line and removed nearly 300 small-breed dogs.

Veterinarians on the scene reported that the dogs had been living in unsuitable conditions for some time and were in poor physical condition. The animals were taken after the county filed a civil injunction against kennel owner Virginia Thornton alleging she "willfully and intentionally" deprived the animals of a proper living environment.

The 283 dogs lived in temporary housing at the Wayne County Agricultural Fairgrounds, cared for by volunteers from across the United States, until more than a dozen animal rescue shelters arrived Feb. 11 to transport the dogs to different locations around the southern U.S.

Ms. Thornton reached a settlement with lawyers on Feb. 19, giving up the dogs to the county. She was put on trial Aug. 13. and found guilty of 12 counts of animal cruelty, as well as being required to pay $2,000 in fines plus court costs. She was banned from breeding dogs and during probation cannot own dogs other than her two personal pets.

7. July 4th fireworks blast takes lives of four Wayne County residents

A team of five people with ties to The Lord's Table church in Goldsboro was unloading a truck of fireworks for a display July 4 on Ocracoke Island when an explosion occurred.

Martez Holland, 27, of Goldsboro, was reportedly in the back of the truck when the blast happened. He was able to jump off the truck, where he was knocked out until paramedics arrived. He received third-degree burns on 20 percent of his body, most extensively to his arms and face.

Charles "Kirk" Kirkland, Jr., 49, died instantly. Mark Hill, 21, and Lisa Simmons, 41, were taken to Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, where they died. Holland's uncle, Terry Holland, 50, was flown to the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals, where he later died.

8. County Commissioners face off with Planning Board

Wayne County commissioners in June launched efforts to exercise more control over the Planning Board and development in the county. By early December, commissioners had approved a number of changes to the Planning Board and its powers.

Commissioners have adopted changes to the county's subdivision and mobile home park ordinances that give them the final say-so on all plats. That approval had rested with the Planning Board.

The third approved change dealt with the ordinance that created the Planning Board more than 40 years ago. Most of those changes were minor.

The most controversial provision deals with commissioners' authority to remove members of the Planning Board. Originally, the wording would allow such removal "with or without cause."

Planing Board members and even some commissioners thought the wording too harsh and it was changed to: "The board of commissioners may remove any member during their appointed term."

9. Cherry Hospital changes leadership and regains federal certification

Cherry Hospital, the state psychiatric facility in Goldsboro, began 2009 with its federal certification revoked and its federal funding suspended after a series of incidents involving patient safety and care in 2008. It also began the year without a permanent leader after former director Dr. Jack St. Clair stepped down from his post.

By March 31, though, the hospital had a new director as Philip Cook took the reins, and at the end of July, federal inspectors recommended to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid that Cherry once again be certified to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Over the course of the year, several former employees were involved in criminal proceedings involving alleged patient abuse and several were convicted.

However, Cook maintained throughout the year that the hospital is on the right track and is improving. He also said they hope to have their new 18-month plan approved by the state early this year.

10. Longtime county leader

Atlas Price dies

Atlas Price, who served on the county Board of Education for 10 years and on Board of Commissioners for another 18, died on Dec. 1 at age 79 after having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier in the year.

Price began his years of public service on the school board in 1976. He was elected to the county commission in 1986 and, with the exception of one term, served until 2008.

During that time he spent nine years as the commission's chairman and three as its vice chairman. In 2005 he was named to the Wayne County Hall of Fame, and in October, was honored with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

He explained his time in public service as something he felt led to do.

After his death, those who knew him remembered him as a good and influential man.

"He was just a very good servant of Wayne County," said Wilber Shirley, a friend and the owner of Wilber's Barbecue. "He represented the average working person. We've been fortunate to have had an Atlas Price."

-- Assistant News Editor Matthew Whittle and staff writers Catharin Shepard and Steve Herring contributed to this report.