A new and very different presidential administration dominated the national news in 2017, but here in Athens, some of the more notable events had people looking to the skies — sometimes in fear, sometimes in wonder.
What people may remember most in is the solar eclipse of Aug. 21; nearly total in Athens, and total just a few miles north.
Planning for the eclipse began months in advance. Amateur astronomer Maurice Snook began spreading the word as the year began, telling school administrators throughout northeast Georgia of what was a once-in-a-lifetime science teaching opportunity.
University of Georgia professors John Knox, also a Clarke County school board member, and Julie Luft got into the act, starting a fundraising drive that raised enough money to give every Clarke County School District student a pair of the special glasses needed to view the eclipse, plus enough glasses to share with some schools outside Clarke County.
They also persuaded the University of Georgia to open up the university’s big Sanford Stadium for eclipse viewers, and an estimated crowd of more than 20,000 came to watch the moon’s shadow crawl against that day’s bright sun.
At Clarke County and most other area schools, the school day lasted a little longer than usual so students could watch the eclipse in supervised safety as the eclipse’s weird darkness descended.
The eclipse helped earn another UGA professor brief worldwide fame, when geography professor Jerry Shannon posted a map of where people could combine eclipse viewing with a Waffle House experience. His Twitter post went viral.
A little less than a month later, Athenians looked to the sky again, but this time not so happily.
Powerful Hurricane Irma swept up through Florida and Georgia in early September, wreaking billions of dollars in damages, and still had plenty of strength when it got to Athens. The storm didn’t inflict serious injury, but wind gusts of more than 50 mph left a path of uprooted trees and other property damage. Cook’s Trail linking Sandy Creek Park and Sandy Creek Nature Center was typical of the inflicted damage; a large tree fell on the trail’s longest boardwalk, which had been rebuilt only months before.
Here are some of the other notable events from Athens’ 2017:
Black leaders in Athens reacted with anger when UGA revealed in a March press release that remains removed during a North Campus renovation project were primarily those of African-Americans, and likely those of former slaves. Construction workers unearthed the first remains as machines cleared space for a parking lot to expand Baldwin Hall in late 2016, but eventually the burial sites numbered more than 100.
UGA had the remains reburied under a marker in nearby Oconee Hill Cemetery, but UGA’s unilateral decision angered some in Athens’ black community, including people whose ancestors might be among those removed to Oconee Hill. It was the second time graves had been cleared away from the Baldwin Hall site, which sits atop part of Athens’ old city cemetery, closed more than 150 years ago when Oconee Hill opened. Other bodies had been unceremoniously removed and buried in an unknown location in the 1930s, when Baldwin Hall was built.
After Georgia’s lackluster 8-5 season under first-year coach Kirby Smart, UGA’s football team emerged as one of the nation’s best in 2017, flirting with an undefeated season before Auburn’s Tigers ended that hope with a 40-17 defeat in the Bulldogs’ next-to-last regular-season Southeastern Conference game.
UGA had its revenge three weeks later, dominating Auburn 28-7 in the SEC championship game. The win propelled UGA into the College Football Playoffs — the Final Four of college football — with a chance to play either Alabama or Clemson for UGA’s first national championship since 1980 if the Bulldogs can dispose of Oklahoma Monday in the first round of the playoffs.
Lots of students downtown
A new apartment complex targeted at students opened in August — The Mark, between East Broad and Oconee streets, with room for nearly 1,000 of the college students it’s marketed toward. But the new complex is just part of a larger picture as downtown Athens transforms in response to accelerating growth at the University of Georgia. UGA enrollment spiked by more than 1,000 students to a record 37,606 from fall 2016 to fall 2017. That was more than enough to fill The Mark, even if UGA’s own housing stock wasn’t down by nearly 1,000 beds as the university closed high-rise dormitory Russell Hall for a year-long renovation.
The Mark is just the latest downtown high-rise student development. Thousands more bedrooms have opened up in other downtown tall buildings in the past few years,
Student housing isn’t the only trend that’s dramatically changing downtown Athens. This fall also saw the opening of the Hyatt Place, with nearly 200 beds; two other downtown hotels under construction will add more than 300 beds, boosting the likelihood of larger conferences in The Classic Center and more tourist dollars.
Majority Republicans redistricted Athens’ state House seats following the 2010 Census to maximize GOP representation in Atlanta, but that strategy backfired in 2017.
In a vote that was partly a gauge of President Trump’s unpopularity locally, Democratic candidates took two House seats that had been held by Republicans. Deborah Gonzalez swept away young Houston Gaines to take the District 117 seat left vacant when Republican Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Regina Quick to a superior court judgeship, and Jonathan Wallace avoided a runoff in winning the District 119 seat left empty when Chuck Williams resigned to become director of the Georgia Forestry Commission. Wallace was helped by a crowded Republican field of candidates in a race in which he was the sole Democratic option.
Wallace and Gonzalez will have to convince voters all over again in 2018; the special elections were only for the unexpired terms of Williams and Quick, and the seats will be up for grabs again in next fall’s statewide elections. Wallace has already scheduled an election fundraiser for January.
Deaths, departures and arrivals
The Athens area lost notable contributors to civic and cultural life in the past year.
Author Judith Ortiz Cofer, beloved by many, passed away. Other notable deaths included former Oglethorpe County Sheriff Mike Smith, who died in July, and Watkinsville Mayor Charles Ivie, who died in October, and former Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Charles Carter of Winterville, who died in November days short of his 92nd birthday.
Former UGA and Miami Dolphins football player Quentin Moses lost his life in February as he tried to save a woman and child trapped in a Walton County house fire.
Hornsby Howell, UGA’s first African American assistant football coach, passed away in October at the age of 90.
The Athens area also saw new faces, perhaps most notably that of Demond Means, who became Clarke County schools superintendent in July. Means replaced Philip Lanoue, who’d been named the national school superintendent of the year in 2015, but a year later was mired in controversy over how school officials responded to a report of sexual assault at Cedar Shoals.
Means promised transparency and change, and set as one priority closing the dismaying achievement gaps among black, white and Hispanic students — gaps so wide “the data forces you to cry,” he said.
The University of Georgia and surrounding counties also saw their share of new faces, including at UGA new College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Lisa Nolan, who took over July 1 for the departed Sheila Allen.
The same day, Justin Kirouac took over for retiring Oconee County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko, assuming both a new job and a new job title — county administrator.
Longtime Clarke County School District teacher and administrator Ernest Hardaway retired in June after 48 years as an educator.
Others announced imminent departures. Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Doc Eldridge, a former Athens-Clarke County mayor, announced he would take a new job in 2018. Madison County’s Allen McCannon, one of the state’s most respected school superintendents, announced that he would resign at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, and UGA announced a search for a new dean of its pharmacy school to replace the retiring Svein Oie, UGA’s longest-serving dean.
Firefly trail and the T-SPLOST
The impact of one November event won’t be fully felt for years. In the same election that put Gonzalez and Wallace into the state Legislature, voters overwhelming approved a new 1 percent sales tax to fund transportation projects — the transportation special option local sales tax, or TSPLOST.
The tax is expected to raise nearly $110 million over the next five years to fund projects such as the Firefly Trail, a bike-pedestrian pathway built on an abandoned railway bed between Athens and Winterville. In addition to $16.8 million for the Firefly Trail, the projects also include $10 million to expand the Oconee River Greenway, $7.1 million for downtown streetscape improvements, $25.6 million for road reconstruction and 15 other projects.
The gun violence that to some seemed to envelop the nation in 2017 touched the Athens area as well, many of them domestic murders, including several murder-suicides.
In Oconee County, for example, authorities in March charged David Blanton in the shooting death of father Mike Blanton. In October, authorities investigating the gunshot deaths of two people concluded that Joe Guthrie had killed wife Teresa, then turned the gun on himself.
In October, Athens-Clarke police responding to a domestic disturbance call on Summerbrook Circle saw 27-year-old Nicholas Head fatally shoot Quintavia Wade, 28, then use the pistol to kill himself after police opened fire on him.
In June, Athens-Clarke police said the shooting death of a transgender teen from Atlanta stemmed from a dispute between two transgender groups.
The killing continued in July in nearby Jefferson when investigators said Thomas Phillip Powers, 46, killed son Phillip Tyler Powers, 26, shot and wounded wife Donna Marie Powers, 45, then used the gun to kill himself.
And in December, Athens-Clarke police investigated another apparent murder-suicide in a West Broad Street hotel room, where the bodies of a 3-year-old girl and her father were found. Police have not yet revealed the causes of death in that case, so it us unknow at this time if a gun was involved. The deaths remain tragic, nonetheless.
A technological era came to an end in 2017 with the announcement that the last of the Athens area’s once great video-rental chain of stores would close.
At one time Vision Video had five stores in the Athens area, but closed them one by one. When the company formed by brothers Hank and Charles Seward 30 years closed its west Athens store in 2015, only its Barnett Shoals Road location remained, and now that too is gone. The company had outlasted competitors like Blockbuster video, and had made the transition from VHS tapes to DVDs, but finally fell victim to new ways of obtaining digital cinema such as the supermarket vending machines like Redbox and online streaming services.