Top stories of 2008 include high winds, new leadership, awards and circuits

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When looking at the top stories that made headlines in Switzerland County in 2008; several items come to the forefront, although few match up with 2007 embezzlements, robberies, and the death of a local war hero.

But there was plenty going on in and around Switzerland County over the past 12 months, and all of it worked together to again shape the community in which we live.

Nationally, the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States energized a nation of young people to get involved in the political process; and as gasoline topped $4 per gallon in mid-summer, everyone was wondering where it all would end.

Gas prices came down drastically at the end of the year – much like the values of individual’s 401k accounts. The financial crisis saw the federal government step in bail out banks and automobile makers and other types of businesses that prop up the economy.

We sent athletes to China for the Olympics; learned more about steroids that we ever cared to know.

Here in Switzerland County, the past year has been filled with everything from unexpected natural disasters to truly historical moments.

So here are the top five stories of 2008, as compiled by Vevay Newspapers. We are well aware that for every story we include, there are 10 more than could be included, but aren’t. Stories were looked at in terms of historical context, impact to the community, and change brought about in terms of direction of the community.

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The top story of the year in Switzerland County was the windstorm that struck in September. As Hurricane Ike smashed into the Southern regions of the U.S., its outer high winds made their way to the Midwest, arriving in Switzerland County on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The winds began blowing at mid-morning, and didn’t stop for hours. The storm downed power lines, blew down trees and took roofs off of homes and businesses.

In the storms wake, schools were closed and much of the county was without power for days. The Federal Emergency Management Agency came to town after Switzerland County was declared a disaster area by state and federal officials; and as the year draws to a close, roofs are still covered with blue tarps and people are still trying to put things back together.

But what makes this our top story of the year has as much to do with what happened after the storm as what happened during the storm.

People came together – as Switzerland County people always do – and provided food and shelter and a place to charge a cell phone. Fire departments opened their doors and served meals to those without power, with much of the food being donated by the local SuperValu grocery store, which couldn’t keep items because it had no power to keep things cold.

Switzerland County came together during that week, and as we look back, we will all remember the spirit of volunteerism as much as the blowing winds.

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Our number two story of the year is the settling of the situation involving Switzerland County Schools. After reeling from the embezzlement of more than $1.1 million, the school corporation had a chance to catch its breath during 2008.

Ann Geyman’s embezzlement saw some doors close as she pled guilty; gave personal items for an auction to try and repay some of the money; and then reported to prison.

January saw Tracy Caddell resign as superintendent to take a position at the Eastern Howard School Corporation; and assistant superintendent Darin Gullion stepped in as interim superintendent and calmed the waters.

The federal court case involving Jill Cord and her claim that the school corporation and Superintendent Caddell had violated her First Amendment right to free speech was settled; and in July Dr. Elizabeth “Itsy” Jones took the reigns as the new superintendent of schools. Being a longtime resident of the county, her hiring was seen as a very positive one by much of the community; and by the November general election, all three school board candidates – Bill Roberts, Jim Phipps, and Wayne Daugherty – who chose to run for reelection were awarded with new four-year terms by the voters.

Like all school corporations, Switzerland County’s will face some tough economic decisions in the coming months and years; but the calm that has come following the turmoil of 2007 makes this an important story for 2008.

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Third on our list is the announcement in June that the killer of Vevay’s Linda Bennitt had been identified and would stand trial for the crime.

Linda Bennitt was murdered in Merrillville, Indiana in 1984; but a team of “cold case” detectives from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office reopened the case late in 2007 and used DNA technology – not yet available when the crime occurred – to identify the man responsible.

The killer was being held in a state hospital in California, and has since been returned to Indiana, where he is expected to stand trial next year.

For the family of Linda Bennitt, having to relive the events of 24 years ago and having to see images of the man who killer their loved one has been tempered by their knowledge that Linda will finally get the justice that she deserves.

It’s not often that Switzerland County deals with murder and DNA and those types of criminal investigations, but that matter makes the third spot on this list in part because of the caring and thoroughness that the team of detectives used in dealing with the family while never losing sight of their suspect.

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Number four on the list are the accomplishments of some students at Switzerland County High School that brought both state and national attention to this community.

The Switzerland County FFA chapter earned first place in the entire country in the area of Chapter Development; with members Jamie Phipps and Carrie Truax making the chapter’s presentation at the FFA National Convention held in Indianapolis.

Long known as one of the top FFA chapters in the state, the national award propelled Switzerland County into the national spotlight, and as television cameras rolled and reporters asked for interviews, and entire community stood by proudly and watched the success of our children.

Individually, Clay Meyer ran his way into the history books when he won the Regional Cross Country Meet held in Bedford.

It was the first time that a Switzerland County student or team had held the title of “Regional Champion”, and capped what may be the greatest individual cross country career that this school system has ever seen.

After years of thinking that sectional titles were the top rung of the ladder, current and future Switzerland County athletes, whether competing as individuals or as part of a team, will always know that regional, semistate, and state-level events are possible – and will point to Clay Meyer in 2008 as proof.

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Rounding out the top five stories of 2008 is the establishment of Indiana’s 91st Circuit Court here in Switzerland County.

After decades of sharing judges and prosecutors; in 2008 the Indiana State Legislature approved a bill that gives this county its own judge and its own prosecuting attorney. No longer will Switzerland County share a circuit court judge and a prosecuting attorney with Jefferson County and a Superior Court Judge with Ohio County.

When Greg Coy assumes his duties as Judge of Switzerland County Court today (Thursday); and Monica Hensley begins her term as Switzerland County Prosecutor today (Thursday), it truly is a moment in history. They are the first ever to hold these positions, and others will look back on this moment in history at some point in the future and see that this is when the 91st Circuit Court came into existence.

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So there you have them, the top five stories of 2008 as determined by Vevay Newspapers. Is it a perfect list? No, because you may want to throw in the county election; the rehabilitation of an injured bald eagle; a great 4-H Fair; and the passing of county residents like James and Charlene May, Johnny Andrew, and Jack Sullivan.

Others may include the demolition of the Markland Bridge; the accident and community response with Laci and Rick Daugherty; or the development of downtown Vevay being led by Switzerland County Tourism.

No matter where things rank on your list, know that Switzerland County continues to be a great place to live and will continue to be that same great community as we head into 2009.

– Pat Lanman