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Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2006 01:01 am

What a year!

A few of our favorite people of 2006 - and what's happened to them

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Legend has it that the Greeks invented the custom of using an infant to symbolize the New Year sometime around 600 B.C. It makes sense — babies are full of hope and promise, packaged to resemble softer, cuddlier versions of their forebears, and bundled with a certain quota of toothless drool and poop.

Baby 2006 endured some harsh treatment from Mother Nature. About the time Springfield got back on its feet after a pair of March tornadoes, she sent an ice storm in November to knock the power lines down again.

2006 also saw its share of state and local government scandal. In April, former Gov. George Ryan was convicted on federal corruption charges; in Springfield, two high-profile Springfield police detectives were fired, and one was indicted on wire-fraud charges. Gov. Rod Blagojevich handily won reelection, but challenger Rich Whitney made a surprising double-digit showing, giving the energized Illinois Green Party easier ballot access next time around. The Copley newspaper chain put a “For Sale” sign on the State Journal-Register and other Midwest properties. Our neighbors in Montgomery County wrestled with the resurgence of coal mining. Fueled by the spike in gasoline prices and government incentives, ethanol plants began sprouting across the state. Several local nonprofit organizations, including Goodwill Industries and the Phoenix Center, dealt with management problems, cleaned house, and moved on.

We’re ready to turn the calendar to 2007. Maybe the war will end. Maybe somebody will find a way to cultivate a crop of honest politicians. Maybe the Black Guardians lawsuit will arrive at some honorable conclusion. Maybe snowballs will freeze in hell and pigs will fly.

But before all that, allow us to linger over a handful of snapshots from 2006 and reconnect with a few of the unforgettable characters we met.

NOBODY LOVES RAY
Ray Coleman truly wants to return to state-government work, but, not surprisingly, his endorsement of Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka, combined with his habit of dissing Gov. Rod Blagojevich at every possible opportunity, certainly didn’t help Coleman’s cause. As a former state-park superintendent who’s also held Democratic office, Coleman was already on thin ice with his party’s leadership for filing a federal discrimination lawsuit against several members of the Democratic governor’s administration [see R.L. Nave, “Hostile Environment,” Feb. 15].

In June, Coleman accepted $65,000 to settle
the case; since then, and though he’s been one of the strongest boosters in the Metro East of Topinka’s successor, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, Coleman likely won’t try to land a job in the young treasurer’s administration.

“I didn’t set my expectations high. My support of Alexi was because I thought he’s qualified and he would be a great treasurer. I’d just like to have access,” says Coleman.

He was also elected this summer to the board of the Illinois Association of Minorities in Government and is focusing all his energy on his role as the interim executive director of the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, in East St. Louis. Dunham, an activist and dance legend, died in May at the age of 96.

MARTY MOVES ON
In April, we met Marty Dwyer, fired from the Illinois Air National Guard for being gay. Yes, Virginia, even though Santa gave “don’t ask, don’t tell” to gay and lesbian soldiers years ago, the Claus didn’t help Dwyer after he rejected the advances of Timothy Hugo, a mentally ill gay civilian with a history of making colorful complaints.

After our story ran [see Dusty Rhodes, “Hard way out,” April 13], we heard from a chorus of readers — mostly “straight” — who had had their own close encounters with Hugo.

Dwyer was never able to find an attorney to take his civil rights lawsuit. He did, however, land a nice state-government job and recently qualified for “disabled veteran” status because of an injury he sustained while working for the ANG.

GOOD BOOKS
In 2006, Phoenix Center did something few charities do. When board members realized their executive director, Jack Bishop, was mismanaging funds, they performed a painful and thorough self-audit of the organization. They tightened the relationship between board members, meeting weekly instead of monthly and communicating with each other every day. They even aired their dirty financial laundry in Illinois Times [see Dusty Rhodes “Phoenix rising,” July 13].

The results have been mixed. Bishop, who resigned in the early days of the investigation, hired high-profile attorney John Baker and sued each board member individually. The case is still pending before Circuit Court Judge Leslie Graves. But board president John Kerstein says Phoenix Center is prospering: The number of clients coming in for sexually transmitted disease testing has tripled, the youth group has grown, grants have increased, and the center’s annual silent auction fundraiser netted four times its previous best sum.

“We’re in much better shape than we ever have been, because now, we’re legitimately in the shape that our financial reports say we’re in,” Kerstein says, referring to Bishop’s alleged creative accounting practices.

The board recently named a new executive director — Jonna Cooley, former director of the Sangamon County Child Advocacy Center. Cooley resigned from CAC in November 2005 amid allegations that she had misappropriated funds, but she has never been charged with any wrongdoing. At Phoenix, her job is to bring in grants and other funding; it takes two board members to sign any check.
“We will never allow a single person to have the kind of autonomy to put us back into that situation,” Kerstein says.

KEYES’ PRINCIPLES
Dayton Keyes is still squabbling with the Illinois Department of Revenue over 30 bucks. Keyes, who cooks up his own biodiesel made from used vegetable oil [see R.L. Nave, “The revolution will be motorized,” April 20], was told by revenue officials in July that he had to register as a fuel producer and pay road fuels tax on the diesel he burns in his Volkswagen.

Fair enough, Keyes said initially. After all, he does contribute to wear and tear on Illinois highways, which is what the tax is designed for. He no longer has to obtain licensing

But then he started thinking: If the state’s position is that anything that can burn in an engine should be taxed, then so should fuel additives, Keyes says. “How many millions of gallons of Heet are sold in Illinois every year?” he asks.

That could be a huge source of revenue, he notes.

In the meantime, Keyes, a police investigator for the secretary of state’s office, says he won’t break the law by using his homemade fuel, which costs him about $1 a day to make. Instead, he’s back to paying full price for regular diesel fuel, which, at last check cost more than $2 per gallon.

ON POINT
In May we featured on our cover a Pleasant Plains High School senior bound for West Point Military Academy. What caught our attention about this particular pint-size soldier-to-be was her previous incarnation as a star figure skater [see Dusty Rhodes “Teacup cadet” May 25].

But Lauren Beckler found that trading in her sequined spandex and skates for fatigues and a rifle wasn’t difficult. She passed West Point’s grueling six-week “beast barracks” camp despite being injured twice.

“She got a bad infection in her foot and had to be on antibiotics and crutches, but she turned in the crutches and went on a 10-mile hike three days later,” says her mom, Missy Beckler. On the 10-mile “ruck march” (carrying a heavy rucksack), Lauren sprained the other ankle. Two days later, she scored 98 of 100 on a two-mile run. Her 10-member squad (she’s the only female) won the company-wide “warrior challenge.” Now that basic training is over and serious coursework has begun, she is her company’s unofficial chemistry tutor, says her father, Terry Beckler.

“Dad, you make me sound like the biggest nerd!” Lauren says.

Lauren flunked a P.E. course in “survival swimming” and had trouble qualifying on her rifle from a foxhole (she’s too short to see out) but has otherwise found that she loves West Point. “The only things I don’t like is being a plebe,” she says, “so next year that part will be over.”

No longer skating, she’s now putting her petite physique to use in a nonfrozen water sport — she was recruited by a rowing crew for the job of coxswain. “I get to sit in the front of the boat and yell,” she says.

AN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
A plan designed to tackle the so-called achievement gap between white and minority students in Springfield’s District 186 is moving ahead, although the program may look a little different from the one that was originally proposed.

Over the summer, prominent local educators Jim Forstall, Allan Woodson, and Gordon Smith floated the idea of a school within a school for African-American boys who performed poorly on standardized tests [see R.L. Nave, “The gap men,” July 6].

Now, Woodson says, “We’re going to go where the numbers take us.”

This means that the program, in which 40 to 60 kids would participate, housed at Washington Middle School, could take in low-achieving African-American girls and white students as well.

Next month, letters will be sent to parents of children who might qualify, and the project is on schedule to begin in time for the 2007-2008 school year. The “three Ph.D.s,” as Forstall, Woodson, and Smith are sometimes called, will serve in an advisory capacity, but Washington Middle School principal Sue Palmer will have instructional authority.

Woodson says he’s not disappointed that the still-unnamed program isn’t limited to black boys. “I would have been disappointed if the school district decided not to do it all or said, ‘Look, it’s our way or the highway,’” he says.

BREATHE AGAIN
Kris Claypool, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, says she has good days and bad days. People with COPD, which is often caused by smoking, have difficulty breathing all the time, so Claypool hasn’t been able to engage in one of her favorite activities — dancing — for some time now.

“I get worn out like everybody with this stupid-ass disease,” she says. Claypool, who quit smoking six years ago, has hoped to get some relief from the treatable but incurable disease. Politics, and her own health, have stood in the way [see R.L. Nave, “Waiting to exhale,” July 27].

Because stem-cell-injection therapy is outlawed in the United States, Claypool booked a November flight to Mexico, where the therapy is legal, to have the treatment performed. However, on Nov. 13 Claypool came down with pneumonia, and she has been sick ever since. She can’t have the therapy until she has a clean bill of health, doctors told her.

In August, Claypool’s friends threw a benefit party to help raise the $6,000 she’ll need for the trip. She’s about $1,500 short of that goal, but says she will pay the rest herself. Now she is hoping her health improves by next month so that she can make another attempt to travel.

In addition to the improvement she hopes the therapy will have on her quality of life, Claypool says, “Mexico-January, January-Mexico. I don’t see anything wrong with that picture!”

20/20 HINDSIGHT
ABC news magazine 20/20 will broadcast another episode featuring the Illinois justice system early next year. Set to air sometime between January and May, the show will reexamine the case of Julie Rea Harper, a woman convicted of killing her 10-year-old son, then retried and acquitted with the help of University of Illinois at Springfield’s Downstate Innocence Project.

Harper, who has been the subject of three Illinois Times cover stories [see Dusty Rhodes “The end,” Aug.10], originally appeared on 20/20 in May 2002. That broadcast indirectly led to the revelation that Tommy Lynn Sells, a serial killer already incarcerated on death row in Texas, had confessed to the murder of Harper’s son.

SEVENTH HEAVEN
When we met Doris Chambers, we were so impressed with her willingness to take in a set of seven siblings that we put this unique family on our cover [see Dusty Rhodes “Lucky number seven,” Oct. 19]. Apparently, our readers felt the same, responding with offers of clothes, food, gift cards, and cash amounting to something close to $2,500, Chambers says.

“It’s like they were trying to tell me, ‘Thank you — I wish I could do that, but since I can’t, I’d like to show you how much I appreciate what you’re doing’,” she says. “I can’t really express how much this has been just wonderful.”

A teacher who works with Chambers at Douglas Alternative School is planning a fundraiser for the family in mid-February.

Also from Dusty Rhodes and R. L. Nave

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