Before we usher in the new year, it’s time for a retrospective of 2015.
Here’s our roundup of some of the biggest stories across the country, events that influenced national conversations on issues from police brutality to gay marriage, tragedies that shook our psyche and acts of heroism that showed Americans at their best.
Alabama: Despite U.S. ruling legalizing gay marriage, gay adoption still a battle in the states
It’s a story chock-full of contention. Two lesbian mothers fight for custody of their three children. Two state courts are at odds over adoption rights for same-sex couples — or at least until the Supreme Court stepped in. But first, some background: When the women — identified only as “E.L.” and “V.L.” in court documents — were still together, they temporarily moved to Georgia to sidestep Alabama law, which wouldn’t allow V.L. to legally adopt the children (E.L. was their birth mother). Georgia, on the other hand, was fine with it. But when the couple split up, things got messy. E.L. decided Alabama had the right idea after all and denied V.L. parental rights. And V.L. wasn’t having it. She took things all the way up to the Supreme Court, which blocked Alabama’s ruling on Dec. 14. If you need an explainer (we bet you do), we’ve got that here.
Alaska: You may have to say goodbye to one of the biggest perks of living in Alaska
Blame it on the oil. This December, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker called for the state’s first income tax in 35 years. Alaska’s the only state that has neither a state-level sales tax nor a personal income tax. For decades, it has been dependent on income from oil, but crude oil prices have been hovering at seven-year lows. So while you’ve been doing your happy dance at the pump, Alaska has been sinking further into debt. Walker’s proposal is part of the state’s New Sustainable Alaska Plan, which, paired with a budget proposal, is meant to close the state’s $3.5 billion deficit.
Arizona: Just how low can Lake Mead go?
Lake Mead shrank to a historic low this year. The reservoir, on the Colorado River, stores water for parts of Arizona, Southern California, southern Nevada and northern Mexico — all of which have endured a 15-year drought. The record low signals that users are consuming more than the river provides. In other words, check-engine light.
Arkansas: The Duggars’ 19 problems and counting
It was a year of turmoil for Arkansas’ Duggar clan. TLC pulled the plug on the family’s hit series, 19 Kids and Counting, following the revelation that Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s son Josh sexually molested five young girls, including his own sisters. Other things Josh Duggar admitted to this year: having an Ashley Madison account. Being unfaithful to his wife. Other things that happened to Josh Duggar this year: rehab. Getting sued by a porn star.
California: Nightmare in San Bernardino
It was a reminder that Islamist terrorism isn’t just a boys’ club. In San Bernardino, Calif., this December, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, burst into a social services center and opened fire, killing 14 people and setting off an intense manhunt that ended with their deaths. On the surface, they had all the makings of the American dream — he had a secure job, they lived in a nice neighborhood in a prosperous community, and they had a new baby girl. But apparently in their off hours, police say the couple, who authorities believe had been radicalized, stockpiled guns, ammunition and bombs in preparation for an attack aimed at killing as many people as possible.
Colorado: ‘A warrior for the babies’
Planned Parenthood found itself in a firestorm of controversy this year after a militant anti-abortion group released secretly filmed videos showing Planned Parenthood doctors discussing how best to collect fetal tissue and organs for research. Abortion-rights groups said the footage led to a surge in violence against abortion clinics. Fast-forward to November, when a gunman killed three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs (none of the victims actually worked there). Authorities said that after the five-hour standoff, Robert Lewis Dear, 57, mentioned ”no more baby parts.” When Dear was in court to be formally advised of the 179 charges against him, he hollered, “I’m a warrior for the babies.”
Connecticut: Syrian family finds home in America — just not where they planned
The family of refugees was destined for Indiana, but politics derailed that. Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy welcomed to his state in November a family of Syrian refugees diverted from Indiana because of security concerns raised by Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence. Pence was among dozens of governors who said they wouldn’t allow Syrian refugees to settle in their states because of fears about terrorism. ”It is the right thing, the humane thing to do,” Malloy said about welcoming the Syrian family. “Quite frankly, if you believe in God, it’s the morally correct thing to do.”
Delaware: ‘Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known’
Former Delaware attorney general Beau Biden might have been the son of a larger-than-life politician, but in his own way, he was a quiet force of nature. Biden was diagnosed in August 2013 with brain cancer and died in May. His father, Vice President Biden, said in a statement: “Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known.” In October, the vice president ended months of intense speculation when he announced he wouldn’t seek the presidency: ”As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others. It may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president. … I’ve concluded it has closed.”
Florida: Search efforts for two teens lost at sea hit dead ends
The deepest fears of two Florida families came to fruition on July 24 when their 14-year-old sons, Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, went missing at sea. The Coast Guard found their capsized 19-foot boat 67 miles off the coast of Daytona Beach two days later and spent a week scanning hundreds of miles of water before calling off the search. The families refused to give up hope that their sons survived and continued their private search funded through crowdsourced donations. Weeks later, when no credible evidence surfaced, the families were forced to end their search but vowed to “never stop looking for our boys.”
Georgia: Bobbi Kristina Brown dies after she was found unconscious in a bathtub, a demise eerily similar to that of mother Whitney Houston
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the legendary Whitney Houston, died in July in an Atlanta-area hospice, nearly six months after she was found unconscious in her Georgia home. She was 22. She never regained consciousness to explain what happened before she was found Jan. 31, facedown and unresponsive in her bathtub. Her death came three years after her mother’s eerily similar demise, and sordid details about Brown’s death unfolded throughout the year, including that a woman in charge of her care is charged with impersonating a nurse, accusations that Brown smoked pot and possibly crack, and documents that allege boyfriend Nick Gordon injected her with a “toxic mixture” before putting her, unconscious, into the bathtub. The double tragedy of Bobbi Kristina Brown and Whitney Houston is easily one of the most heartbreaking of the celebrity world.
Hawaii: Flying on sun power
We’ll call this one down but not out. It’s a solar-powered airplane that uses no fuel, can remain in the air indefinitely and which this year attempted a nearly 22,000-mile, round-the-world voyage — until it fried its batteries. Solar Impluse 2’s journey, which began March 9 with a flight from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, included various stops around the world with the mission of showcasing what can be done using nothing but renewable energy. The plane landed in Hawaii in July after the longest, most dangerous leg, the eighth of 13. It’ll be housed at the University of Hawaii hangar at the Kalaeloa airport on Oahu while repairs are made. It’s due to continue its journey come April.
Idaho: An injured hunter’s harrowing tale of survival
John Sain thought he would die alone. While on a solo hunting trip in the Idaho wilderness, the 50-year-old snapped two bones in his right leg after an unlucky misstep. In pain and miles from the nearest trail, he considered ending his life. He even penned goodbye letters to his wife and two children. But he decided to fight. After almost four days of dragging himself through the dense wilderness toward the trail with little food or water, two men found him and called for help. Life Flight took Sain to a nearby hospital, where he reunited with his family and started his road to recovery.
Illinois: Laquan McDonald and The Chicago Way
Seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by police officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 20, 2014 — thirteen of those shots were fired while McDonald was on the ground. You’re reading about this story in 2015 because that’s when explosive video of the shooting was made public. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was forced by court order to release it. The city sat on the dashcam video, which is at odds with the narrative pushed by the Chicago Police Department, for more than a year. Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder hours before the footage was released. USA TODAY reporter Aamer Madhani wrote in a column this year that the McDonald case shows “The Chicago Way — the city’s shorthand for its politics in which corruption, patronage and ineptitude have long been part of the landscape — is alive and well.”
Warning: This video has graphic content.
Indiana: A ‘religious freedom’ law and a governor’s regrets
At the end of March, Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a law that allows businesses to assert a religious defense if they decline to provide services to a customer. These “religious freedom” laws have been described as necessary to allow, for example, a baker who has strong religious beliefs to say no to baking a cake for a gay wedding. But after the bill was signed, several large companies announced they wouldn’t do business with Indiana because it was discriminating against gays. The state quickly passed an amendment to clarify the bill cannot be used to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With a little hindsight, Pence said in May, “If I have a regret, I regret that we didn’t spend more time listening before the bill got to my desk. My ambition is to be a better listener.”
Iowa: Center of the political universe
From the moment a campaign kicks off until the time the caucus winners are declared, there is no state more important to choosing our next president than Iowa — and that was never more true than in 2015. It was Hillary Clinton’s first destination after she kicked off her White House bid in the spring. Iowa made campaigns (see Scott Walker’s rise and Ted Cruz’s recent surge) and helped end them (see Walker’s fall after his Iowa numbers plummeted). And, of course, the state was the site of some of Donald Trump’s most memorable moments — from the free rides on his helicopter he gave kids at the Iowa State Fair in August to his controversial comments about John McCain in July. We’re a long way from knowing how it will end, but Iowa helped lay the foundation for what promises to be a presidential campaign we won’t soon forget.
Kansas: Where is the water?
Groundwater is disappearing beneath cornfields in Kansas. An investigation by USA TODAY and The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun reveals time is running out for portions of the High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states from South Dakota to Texas and is the lifeblood of one of the world’s most productive farming economies. The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, makes possible about one-fifth of the country’s output of corn, wheat and cattle. But its levels have been rapidly declining, and with each passing year, more wells are running dry.
Kentucky: How a county clerk broke the law, miffed Jennifer Lawrence, got compared to Rosa Parks, met the pope
She was this year’s Christian hero. Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis made national news after refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, claiming it conflicted with her Christian beliefs. She spent five nights in jail and was allowed to return to work when she agreed not to interfere with the issuance of licenses. Jennifer Lawrence said Davis made her “embarrassed to be from Kentucky.” Syndicated Christian columnist Bryan Fischer wrote she’s ”our Rosa Parks.” Davis even met with Pope Francis during his U.S. visit. “I never thought I would meet the pope,” Davis said. “Who am I to have this rare opportunity? I am just a county clerk who loves Jesus and desires with all my heart to serve him.”
Louisiana: The gloves came off in the gubernatorial campaign
Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards was elected governor of Louisiana, defeating two-term U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, in an almost unthinkable upset in the ruby-red state. Edwards emphasized his conservative views, leveraged his appointment to West Point and used a TV ad to call out Vitter’s involvement in a prostitution scandal. The ad shows Edwards “answering his country’s call” in his Army Ranger uniform. Then it shows Vitter, on a cellphone, “who answered a prostitute’s call.” The ad launched just in time for early voting. Edwards takes office Jan. 11.
Maine: Man + dog + kindness of strangers = happiest ending
Now that’s puppy love. Joel Carpenter lives in Portland, Maine, and found the dog of his dreams on petfinder.com. The only problem was she was across the country in a Minnesota shelter. Carpenter could afford to get to Minnesota, but he didn’t have enough money for the ticket home. It didn’t matter. He flew to Minneapolis and rescued his girl, Sadie. “I was just kind of following my heart,” Carpenter said. Next began his odyssey to get back to Portland. That’s when strangers, following their hearts, raised enough money for the two to return home.
Maryland: Freddie Gray dies while in police custody; riots ensue; officers face trial
On April 12, a black man was taken into custody in Baltimore. A week later, his spinal cord nearly severed, he was dead. Freddie Gray, 25, died of a “high-energy injury” that likely occurred when the police van he was riding in suddenly slowed down, an autopsy showed. His death sparked “Justice for Freddie” protests in Baltimore, which later turned violent; a curfew was instituted, and the National Guard was brought in. Despite the riots, protesters had some significant defenders, including Orioles COO John Angelos. The six police officers involved in the arrest were charged in Gray’s death. The first of their trials, of officer William Porter, ended in mistrial in December.
Massachusetts: Deflategate dethrones Tom Brady
Hours after the New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts in January to reach Super Bowl XLIV, the Deflategate scandal broke. The NFL investigated whether Patriots employees — with the knowledge of quarterback Tom Brady — had lowered the air pressure of balls used by the team during the game. The scandal hung over the Patriots as they beat the Seattle Seahawks two weeks later to win their fourth title. Brady was eventually suspended four games by the league. That punishment was vacated by a federal judge before the start of the 2015-16 season. The case still lives on as the NFL has appealed the decision.
Michigan: The Syrian refugee who moved Edward Norton, Obama and pretty much everyone else in America with his desire to do good
A Michigan-bound Syrian refugee who lost his wife and daughter in a deadly attack became a worldwide viral sensation in December after sharing his story with Brandon Stanton, the creator of the popular photo blog Humans of New York. Among the thousands (President Obama included!) who followed the Facebook photo series about the unnamed scientist bound for a fresh start in Michigan: actor and filmmaker Edward Norton. He used his celebrity powers for good by launching an aptly named fundraising campaign for the man and his family called The Scientist, which has raised more than $455,000 and counting. That’s the power of social media for you, folks.
Minnesota: The hunter becomes the hunted
That’s what happens when you kill one of the world’s most beloved animals. Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer is a big-game hunter who shot and killed Cecil the lion in July. Cecil was one of the most famous animals at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. People flipped. Like, taping signs to Palmer’s office door that read “Killer” and “ROT IN HELL.” Then people flipped some more because people were flipping out about a lion and not about other things, like Black Lives Mattering. More on that here. Palmer said he thought he was acting legally and deeply regretted taking Cecil’s life. He returned to work in September. You can imagine what that looked like.
Mississippi: 17 arrested in case of burned-alive teen — but none charged yet in her death
The mystery of 19-year-old Jessica Chambers, found on a rural road, burned alive, unraveled throughout 2015. Chambers was doused with gasoline and set afire on Dec. 6, 2014, near Courtland, Miss., and officials spent the ensuing months interviewing more than 150 people and sorting through more than 20,000 phone records trying to find her assailant(s). That’s when investigators turned up evidence of other suspected illegal activity ranging from narcotics sales, possession of stolen firearms and possession of counterfeit currency. FBI agents targeted suspected gang members and arrested 17 men on Dec. 15, though none is charged with killing Chambers. “This is not over by any stretch of the imagination,” said District Attorney John Champion.
Missouri: About the First Amendment …
The good news: Students were protesting racism at the University of Missouri, and their efforts led to the ouster of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and University of Missouri-Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. The bad news: Students and two university employees — one a communications professor — blocked student journalists from covering the protests. Why was this a big deal? Just a little thing called the First Amendment, which protects the right to report in the same way it protects the right to protest.
Montana: Listen to your grandma when it comes to bear attacks
One way to survive a grizzly bear attack? Shove your arm down the bear’s throat. That was Chase Dellwo’s technique when a bear, just as startled as he was, thrashed the elk hunter around in the Montana woods. “I remembered an article that my grandmother gave me a long time ago that said large animals have bad gag reflexes,” Dellwo said. The technique worked, and Dellwo, with bites on his head and leg, lived to tell his story.
Nebraska: This is what happens when your neighbor (state) smokes pot
Nebraska and Oklahoma are not fans of Colorado’s legal marijuana system, saying it has created a flood of modern-day bootleggers who are buying pot in Colorado and then illegally crossing state lines. They sued Colorado, asking the Supreme Court to block Colorado’s legal-marijuana system. The federal government asked the Supreme Court to stay out of it. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. argued that the Supreme Court generally avoids disputes between states, unless it’s the states themselves at odds. In this case, Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado over the actions of private citizens.
Nevada: High hopes dashed by Mayweather-Pacquiao fight
What cost $99.95, lasted 36 minutes and probably put you to sleep? The pay-per-view battle royale in Las Vegas between boxing legends Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao on May 2. What was supposed to be an epic fight turned out to be more of an epic failure — it was all about the payout at best, For The Win’s Chris Chase reported. We hoped for a fight that would evoke the memories of Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Sugar Ray, The Hitman and Hagler. What we got? Glorified sparring. Fingers crossed, their next rematch — if there is, in fact, one in the works — will be more a brawl and less of a bummer.
New Hampshire: Ben Carson made a map of the U.S. and put a bunch of states in the wrong place
Being president of the United States comes with a number of incredibly important responsibilities. Serving as commander in chief of our nation’s armed forces, navigating the tricky waters of foreign policy and, hey, knowing where the states are on a map. Unfortunately, Ben Carson can’t tick off that last box quite yet. The GOP presidential candidate’s campaign shared a map in November that misplaced five New England states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. His campaign deleted the Twitter and Facebook posts with the graphic.
New Jersey: Family terrorized by stalker called ‘The Watcher’
In a story that sounds more like the plot of a twisted horror film than reality, a family was forced to forgo living in their New Jersey dream home after receiving threatening letters from a stalker called “The Watcher.” The individual wrote that the Westfield, N.J., home the family recently purchased has been “the subject of my family for decades,” and that he or she was “put in charge of watching and waiting for its second coming.” The letters taunt the new owners and their children to the point that the family did not move in and is seeking damages for fraud and breach of contract. The family said the previous owners should have told them that the home was being watched before they purchased the property.
New Mexico: The knockout seen ’round the world
New Mexico native Holly Holm became an overnight sensation after doling out a devastating roundhouse kick to UFC superstar Ronda Rousey’s face. It was the knockout seen ‘round the world, and it left the previously undefeated Rousey seriously messed up. She won’t be able to eat an apple for three to six months. No, really — we’re not kidding. Adding more drama to the mix, the stakes of the two powerhouse fighters’ inevitable rematch are high. Rousey told ESPN the Magazine, “either I’ll win and keep going or I won’t and I’ll be done with everything.” The Mayweather-Pacquiao rematch in May may have been a bust, but odds are the Rousey-Holms rematch will be epic.
New York: The prison break that wasn’t ‘Shawshank’ that everyone was dying to call ‘Shawshank’
The escape of two convicted murderers from a maximum-security facility in New York had all the plot points of a hit movie: a seemingly impossible getaway, insider help and few concrete leads on the escapees’ whereabouts. So obviously it didn’t take long for The Shawshank Redemption references to drop. But we were cautioned that these guys were no Andy and Red (good guys wronged who — spoiler alert — eventually got to live as BFFs forever on a beach in Mexico). Richard Matt and David Sweat, who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in June, were murderers who wouldn’t hesitate to kill to get away. Nearly three weeks later, Matt was fatally shot. Two days after that, Sweat was shot and taken into custody.
North Carolina: Santa Claus can speak in any language
Even sign. This holiday season, 70 deaf and hard-of-hearing children from the Charlotte region got to tell Santa everything on their lists. Bicycles. Dolls. Video game systems. The usual. What was unusual was that they were able to talk to Santa themselves. “It will be a memory they’ll always remember for the rest of their lives,” said Donna Katic with Deaf Services.
North Dakota: U.S. Supreme Court will take up case on ‘deep-lung’ breath tests
Can states charge motorists with a crime for refusing to take a breath test on suspicion of driving drunk when police lack a warrant? The Supreme Court will decide, after it said in December it would hear cases out of Minnesota and North Dakota in which drivers were charged with a crime after they refused to take “deep-lung” breath tests. Thirteen states make it a crime to refuse blood-alcohol tests. The Supreme Court has ruled in general that police cannot search a driver or vehicle upon arrest without a warrant unless it’s for their personal safety or to preserve evidence. The court ruled in 2013 that police could not conduct blood tests for drunken driving without a warrant. Based on that, the challengers in the Minnesota and North Dakota cases said, refusing such tests should not constitute a separate crime.
Ohio: ‘I didn’t even do nothing’
Samuel DuBose’s final words echoed across the country as a national conversation about race and police brutality churned on: “I didn’t even do nothing.” White University of Cincinnati Police officer Ray Tensing said he shot 43-year-old DuBose, an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop after being dragged by DuBose’s vehicle. Then the video changed everything. Footage from Tensing’s body camera showed a calm exchange. Tensing was fired and indicted on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter. More examples of how video is becoming the new smoking gun in police shootings.
Oklahoma: Cop found guilty of serial rape
A former Oklahoma City police officer was convicted in December of sexually assaulting women he preyed upon in a low-income neighborhood he patrolled. A jury convicted Daniel Holtzclaw of four charges of first-degree rape and 14 other counts. He sobbed while hearing the verdicts on his 29th birthday. Holtzclaw could spend the rest of his life in prison: The jury’s recommendation is that he serve 263 years.
Oregon: Terror strikes Oregon community college
Before opening fire, Chris Harper Mercer asked students in a classroom whether they were Christians. He targeted those who said yes. The 26-year-old was described as a bitter loner who acted “like he was playing a video game and showed no emotion” as he gunned down nine people and injured nine more on Oct. 1 at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., before turning his gun on himself. From the chaos rose a hero. Army veteran Chris Mintz sprinted through the campus to warn others and physically blocked the door to a classroom of terrified students so Mercer couldn’t gain entry, getting shot five times in the process. More on him here.
Pennsylvania: Deadly Amtrak derailment snarls Northeast train traffic
The cause of a catastrophic Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured 200 people on May 12 remains under investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board determined Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 was traveling 106 mph through a curve with a 50-mph speed limit when it jumped the tracks. The engineer, Brandon Bostian, has told investigators he cannot recall what happened. The incident snarled traffic between New York and Philadelphia, one of the most heavily traveled train routes in the nation.
Rhode Island: Be thankful you don’t have gonorrhea
Watch where you Tinder. A recent rise in sexually transmitted diseases in Rhode Island could be, in part, due to social apps, the state’s Department of Health said this year. In a press release on the state’s website, the department states that “using social media to arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters” has contributed to the recent rise.
South Carolina: A massacre in Charleston; an outcry against hate across the state
On June 19, hate walked into a Bible study at the historic black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and opened fire. Nine people were killed, including the church’s pastor, a state senator. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man who flaunted symbols of white supremacy and was linked to hate groups, was arrested a day later. Roof joined the Bible study for an hour before shooting the parishioners, prosecutors say. Roof was indicted on 33 federal charges, as well as on federal hate-crimes charges and will be tried in July. As a direct response to the massacre, South Carolinians took up the issue of the Confederate battle flag on its Statehouse grounds; in July, state legislators passed the measure, and the flag, seen by many as a symbol of hatred and racism, was removed.
South Dakota: A controversial peak
It’s one of the nation’s biggest naming controversies (now that Denali’s name is settled once and for all). Harney Peak is a 7,244-foot-high South Dakota summit (once considered for the famous mountain carving of presidents that went to Mount Rushmore). Lakota Indians and their allies are fighting to get the federal government to change the name, which they find offensive. William S. Harney, its namesake, was a brutal Army general whom Lakota tribes blame for massacring 86 people — including women and children — under Chief Little Thunder’s flag of truce in the Battle of Ash Hollow in 1855. The South Dakota Board on Geographic Names this year voted to retain the name. A final decision from the federal board probably won’t come until next year.
Tennessee: N.J. man adopts Tennessee school after email mix-up and gives everyone the best feels
It’s a tremendous story about kindness. Thad Livingston had never been to Mount Juliet (Tenn.) Elementary School. He had never even met anybody there. And he lives about 800 miles away. But the kids call him their “New Jersey grandfather.” An email blast from the school mistakenly went to Livingston in Eastampton Township, N.J., at the start of the school year. Instead of ignoring it, he started to help with small things he learned the school needed, and his charity helped launch a Random Acts of Kindness Challenge among students. “When someone makes a big impression on you,” Mount Juliet fifth-grader Andrew Romer said, “it makes you want to do a lot of good in the world.” Livingston estimated he still gets one to two emails per week from the school, though nobody has been able to figure out why.
Texas: The mysterious death of Sandra Bland
Just what happened to Sandra Bland? It’s the question her family has been asking since her death in a Texas jail cell in July. If you haven’t heard of her, it may be useful to know that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used her name in the same breath as Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. Authorities say she was arrested for getting confrontational during a traffic stop, went to jail and committed suicide in her cell a few days later. Her family doesn’t believe it. A Texas grand jury hearing in December ruled it would not indict anyone in connection with the incident.
Utah: A 100-year weather event
Utah weather officials declared it the deadliest flooding in recorded state history. It was enough to qualify as a 100-year flood event — a flood that would have a 100-to-1 chance of happening in any given year. On Sept. 14, a seasonal storm system dropped heavy rains on mountains between the Grand Canyon and Zion national parks, prompting flash flooding that claimed several lives. Members of the polygamous community on both sides of the Utah-Arizona state line referred to the tragedy as their personal 9/11 because of its proximity to the anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks.
Vermont: Bernie Sanders has a big 2015
If you aren’t from the Green Mountain State, you might not have heard of Bernie Sanders until this year. The Vermont senator, a 74-year-old known for his halo of white hair and thick Brooklyn accent, has had a big 2015. The self-described Democratic socialist proved himself a heavy-hitting contender for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential race, going toe-to-toe with front-runner Hillary Clinton. Millennials love him. Scores of others #FeelTheBern. And Time magazine put him in the running for their “Person of the Year” cover. Although he didn’t win, 2015 has been good to Bernie. And if he’s voted into the White House, 2016 will be even better.
Virginia: On-air killing of TV journalists leaves nation stunned
A horror story unfolded the morning of Aug. 26 as two young journalists at Roanoke’s WDBJ 7-TV were fatally shot on live television by a disgruntled former colleague, who then posted video footage of the crime from his perspective to social media. Making Alison Parker and Adam Ward’s murders all the more devastating, both were in serious relationships with colleagues. Ward’s fiancée, a WDBJ producer, watched his murder live from the control room, while Parker’s boyfriend, an anchor for the station, later revealed the couple had planned to get married. Despite the darkness of the day, it was not without a shining light: The newsroom endured and continued to broadcast amid tears, showing strength in the face of tragedy.
Washington: A white woman identifies as black and baffles the nation on race
This is the saga of Rachel Dolezal, who resigned in June as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed she lied about her racial identity. Dolezal publicly claims she’s black. Her parents say she’s white. The questions we were forced to ask: What constitutes race? And do you have the right to adopt a new identity if you haven’t lived the experience? Bonus: Maya Rudolph’s Dolezal impression.
West Virginia: Want to combat gender inequality online? Hire your own ‘Wikipedian-in-residence’
West Virginia University wants to close Wikipedia’s gender gap. Since its founding in 2001, the free and openly editable encyclopedia has attracted more than 25 million registered users and more than 1,000 editors. But, according to a 2011 survey conducted by Wikipedia, only 8.5% of these editors are women. The ubiquity of Wikipedia use makes this gender disparity an issue of quality control. The university wants to help correct the imbalance with a one-year Wikipedian-in-residence position, designed to increase the number of Wikipedia articles about West Virginian women and gender studies by 25%, according to a press release issued by the university.
Wisconsin: Man plants 4-mile stretch of sunflowers and becomes 2015’s biggest romantic
Don Jaquish lost his wife, Babbette, to cancer last year, just before Thanksgiving. ”Her and I, what we had is as good as it gets,” he said. Sunflowers were Babbette’s favorite. In her memory, Don planted a 4½-mile ribbon of them along both sides of Wisconsin State Road 85. A gift to his wife, but also to a world of romantics. Millions of people saw Babbette’s flowers — in person, online and on the news. Erin Renz, Babbette’s daughter, on why the tale of the sunflowers captivated so many people: “Who doesn’t love a love story?”
Wyoming: Town where Matthew Shepard was killed passes LGBT law, 17 years later
In 1998, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Laramie. Seventeen years later, the town where he died adopted a non-discrimination ordinance declaring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and public facilities illegal in the city. The Laramie mayor said Shepard’s death didn’t influence the ordinance but he believes it will help alleviate perceptions people developed of Laramie as a result of Shepard’s murder. Earlier this year, the state tried to pass a non-discrimination act, but it failed. Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, told the Associated Press: “I’m thrilled that Laramie’s doing it, at the same time sort of saddened that the state of Wyoming can’t see fit to do that as well. Maybe the rest of Wyoming will understand this is about fellow human beings and not something that’s other than what they are.”
Compiled by Alia E. Dastagir. Contributing: Associated Press
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- Coronavirus live updates: California and 8 states sue EPA, ‘This is 2020, not 1920’
- Coronavirus live updates: Gov. Newsom says federal government obligated to help states
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