What Kentucky news stories will we remember from 2012?

December 31, 2012

 Kent Nickell photographed the tornado from his yard on Riverside Drive in West Liberty as it approached the city on March 2.


It hardly seems possible that 2012, the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s 220th year, has come to an end. As with most years, there was good news and bad news, joy and sorrow, beginnings and endings. What will we remember most?

Wildcat basketball fans will remember 2012 as the eighth year of nirvana for Kentucky’s secular religion. The University of Kentucky men’s team beat Kansas 67-59 to win its eighth NCAA crown and the first since 1998.

Fans will expect a repeat soon, if not immediately, but it won’t be with that team. After its brief residency in Lexington, the talented squad of underclassmen moved on to professional careers with the National Basketball Association.

Kentucky would have had an even better sports year if I’ll Have Another had had just one more.

After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the chestnut son of Flower Alley was scratched the day before the Belmont Stakes because of tendonitis. That disappointed horse racing fans who had hoped to see their first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

The spring of sports excitement provided a measure of relief from tragedy. As March began, tornadoes raked the eastern half of Kentucky, killing 22 people. Among the hardest-hit areas were Morgan, Johnson and Lawrence counties.

West Liberty took a direct hit: dozens of homes, churches and businesses were demolished. That included the old and new Morgan County courthouses and another local landmark: the Freezer Fresh ice cream shop.

The people of West Liberty were down but hardly out. In the months since the twisters, the community has worked hard to rebuild and reimagine its future. Following the example of another tornado-ravaged town — Greensburg, Kan. — West Liberty leaders hope to use the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild using the latest energy-efficiency design and construction. Oh, and the Freezer Fresh is back in business.

Among 2012’s other highlights and lowlights:

Spring storms gave way to oppressive summer heat and drought that scorched Kentucky’s corn crop. Still, The Associated Press reported that state farm cash receipts were expected to surpass $5 billion for the first time.

Photo by Mark Cornelison

Dry weather prompted Mayor Jim Gray to ban amateur fireworks for the Fourth of July. Urban County Council members liked the peace and quiet so much they decided to ban them permanently.

Centre College in Danville hosted the 2012 vice presidential debate, repeating its much-praised performance as host to the 2000 event. Centre student leaders unsuccessfully tried to get the candidates to sign the campus “civility pledge,” but there was little civility to be had in this election year.

Petty partisanship by Democrats and Republicans resulted in state redistricting plans so skewed that the courts rejected them, at great expense to taxpayers. Despite the removal of some heavily Republican areas from the 6th Congressional District, four-term U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler lost his seat to Andy Barr, leaving Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville as the Kentucky delegation’s lone Democrat.

The Kentucky General Assembly did manage to do something useful: It passed legislation to improve prescription monitoring and crack down on “pain management” clinics that have helped fuel the epidemic of prescription drug abuse.Gov. Steve Beshear removed the biggest thorn in his side by appointing state Senate President David Williams of Burkesville to a judgeship. Williams, whose tenure as Republican leader in the Senate created a lot of heartburn for Democrats, is now eligible for a sweeter pension when he retires.

Coal industry employment in Kentucky declined. Industry executives and their favored politicians whined about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” But the main culprit was less coal use because of cheaper natural gas. Meanwhile, there were plenty of headlines about mine health, safety and environmental violations.

Richie Farmer, who became famous as one of the 1991-92 UK basketball team’s “Unforgettables,” probably would like to forget 2012. The year after losing his race for lieutenant governor as Williams’ running mate, Farmer went through a divorce and a scathing audit of his free-spending tenure as state agriculture commissioner.

In other official misbehavior: Knott County Judge-Executive Randy Thompson and Breathitt County Schools Superintendent Arch Turner went to prison for vote-buying, while the state Supreme Court removed Harlan Circuit Judge Russell from office because of a pattern of misconduct. The Breathitt schools were taken over by the state because of mismanagement.

Downtown Lexington’s economic renaissance continued, with the promise of more to come.

An imaginative redevelopment plan for Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the sea of city-owned surface parking surrounding it was unveiled. Then planners began looking for ways to resurface long-buried Town Branch creek as a linear park to attract people and investment to downtown.

Louisville-based 21c bought the old First National Bank building so it can be converted into one of its acclaimed hotels and contemporary art museums.

The long-delayed CentrePointe project continued to evolve but remained a grassy field for downtown festivals. Lexington’s EOP Architects refined Studio Gang’s site plan into a nice design. But The Webb Companies still need to find tenants and more than $200 million in financing to make it happen.

On a sad note, the old Fayette County courthouse, which housed the Lexington History Museum, was closed because of lead paint hazard, underscoring the need to renovate that architectural gem in the center of the city.

Among notable transitions: Keeneland President Nick Nicholson retired and was succeeded by Bill Thomason. Lexington fire department veteran Keith Jackson became the force’s first black chief. UK football coach Joker Phillips was replaced by Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator at Florida State.

Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock and Georgetown College President Bill Crouch announced plans to retire in 2013. And the annual Ichthus Christian music festival in Wilmore, plagued by debts and perennial rain, called it quits after 42 years.

Among notable deaths: Gatewood Galbraith, Kentucky’s favorite never-elected politician; Monsignor Ralph Beiting, founder of the charitable Christian Appalachian Project; former UK first lady Gloria Singletary; equine photographer Tony Leonard; and Lois Gray, who helped her children, including Lexington’s mayor, build the family’s struggling construction company into a national powerhouse after her husband’s death.

Happy New Year.