The high and low points of 2009 in Hernando County

Well, let's start with the obvious. Residents of Hernando County are human, and as such, some emerged as winners in the truest sense of the word in 2009; they showed courage, intelligence, loyalty and creativity when it counted most. Then there are losers, those residents who gave in to political pressure or urges for violence, sex and big profits.

And so, what follows is a list of just a few of 2009's most commendable and contemptible Hernando residents:

Winners:

Sgt. Adam Freeman As the war in Iraq dragged on year after year, we heard of more and more soldiers serving not just one, but two or three tours of duty in danger zones. But even in this overburdened force, Freeman, a Springstead High School graduate who enlisted in the Marines shortly before 9/11, stood out. He was deployed in combat zones five times between 2003 and 2008. How rare is that? Here's how rare: More than 141,000 Marines have been deployed since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and only 22 have served five combat tours. The last time Freeman was chosen to fight, an officer gave him the chance to stay out of harm's way. Freeman declined. "I lost my right to complain when I enlisted," he said after the end of his final tour last year.

Ernie Chatman — He's the winner of my It's a Wonderful Life Award for long and outstanding service in a small town. Chatman retired in 2009 after a 36-year coaching career at Hernando High. His style — demanding and maybe a bit obsessive — earned him dozens of winning seasons in four different sports, a state cross-country title and a place in the Florida Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame. Though he was never one for hugs or excessive praise, the affection for him in Brooksville poured out pretty much the way it did for George Bailey in fictional Bedford Falls. Said former Hernando High pitcher Mike Walker, who went on to play in the major leagues: "You could even say Coach Chatman became like a father figure to me."

SPRINGSTEAD HIGH SCHOOL BOYS BASKETBALL TEAM — Led by outstanding seniors Dante Valentine and Isaiah Mason, the Eagles dominated local competition and then went on to prove they could play with the best teams in the state. The team's undefeated streak lasted just about 31.5 games, or until the Eagles collapsed in the second half of the state championship against Cocoa High. Considering Cocoa's deep bench, and that the team had been seasoned by games against top squads in the state and even from California, Springstead's performance in the final was still highly impressive. As math teacher Regina Vanlow said in the championship game's closing seconds: "We're proud of our boys."

Lonnie Knight — This is what happens when 11-year-old boys listen to their teachers — and have a knack for quick, level-headed action. In April, at the Eastside Elementary School cafeteria, Lonnie watched the face of friend Roderick Reynolds turn an alarming shade of purple. His mind flashed back to the previous October, when his teacher performed the Heimlich maneuver on a child who was choking on a peanut butter sandwich and later explained how it was done. Lonnie knew to grab Roderick from behind and force his fist into his abdomen. "Five or six upward thrusts later," wrote Times correspondent Paulette Lash Ritchie, and "the chunk of chicken thunked onto the tray." Roderick was saved and Knight later received an award for his actions from Hernando County Fire Rescue.

Jem Lugo — Lugo had already racked up a long list of distinctions by the time she was ready to graduate from Springstead in 2009. She was class valedictorian, won scholarships, had been accepted at Harvard, and had written a witty graduation speech full of pop culture references and friendly jabs at her classmates. Maybe too witty, with too many jabs. Springstead principal Susan Duval forced her to write a safer — and more boring — replacement speech. The resulting outrage brought her even more distinctions: requests for interviews from radio stations around the country and in Canada, an invitation to fly to New York City to appear on the CBS Early Show, and, we can imagine, a summa cum laude for cool from her classmates when she turned down this invitation and stayed home to party with her friends.

Joe and Valerie Cuce — Owners of the Jersey Cafe on State Road 50, the Cuces realized that as the recession dragged on, their regulars weren't so regular any more. And the young families who liked to stop by before heading to a nearby movie theater? They weren't coming in as often, either. So the Cuces came up with their own economic stimulus package: free food for a day. Yes, you cynics, it might also have been a publicity stunt. No matter. The Cuces followed through on their promise, and on a Wednesday in mid August they dished up hundreds of plates of patty melts, scrambled eggs and meat loaf to grateful customers. "The world doesn't always have to be a cruel place," Joe Cuce said.

Losers:

Wayne Alexander — Alexander, former superintendent of Hernando County schools, started the year with the support of most School Board members but with slightly shaky credibility. He'd been quietly applying for work in apparent violation of his contract, which required him to notify the district of any job searches. It happened again in April and by August one of his backers on the board, Dianne Bonfield, said she wasn't one any longer. The next month Alexander was gone. Who are the real losers here: Alexander, who quickly landed a high-paying job in Connecticut, or his most stubborn backers, John Sweeney and Sandra Nicholson? We'll know after this year's election.

Blaise Ingoglia — Maybe I should say members of the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee are the real losers for voting him in as chairman in April. In doing so, they chose as the face of their organization a builder who fed the speculative frenzy widely credited with sending the housing market into a death spiral. Ingoglia, whose Hartland Homes was the largest local builder during the boom years, sold out-of-town buyers on the idea that easy money could be made in the Florida housing market. To listen to his pitch in Los Angeles in March of 2007, you'd never know the boom had already started to turn to bust, one investor, Kathryn Morea, told the Times last year. Needless to say, Ingoglia's promise of profits didn't come true, partly because the house Ingoglia built for Morea was on a remote lime rock road, something he had neglected to mention. "I think (Ingoglia's pitch) was fiction from the beginning," Morea said.

Jamie Joyner — It's probably pretty obvious: Being accused of fighting with a high school kid and getting involved in a romantic relationship with another is not a good way to build a career as an educator. Joyner started the year having survived a dustup as coach of the powerhouse Nature Coast Technical High School football team. The previously undefeated team was suspended from the 2008 playoffs after a referee said Joyner struck a rival player during an on-field brawl. (Joyner denied it). Then, in April, the parents of a Nature Coast senior said they had evidence that Joyner had a long-term sexual relationship with their daughter, which Joyner also denied. No criminal charges were ever filed but Joyner quickly resigned.

Timothy Brightbill — Combine Joyner's ugly exit, the criminal conviction of Brightbill, Nature Coast's former band director and other controversies, and maybe you could say the whole school sunk into the "loser" category last year. Brightbill was accused of having sex with a 17-year-old girl in late 2008 and, in August 2009, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Add in a controversy over out-of-county students attending the magnet school and the involvement of students in various other crimes and car accidents — including the collision that took the life of a beloved sheriff's captain — and you see that 2009 was, to put in mildly, a tough year for Nature Coast. "The faculty got to the point where we'd be having the morning staff meeting and they'd be holding their breath, like 'What's next?' '' said the school's longtime principal, Margaret "Tizzy" Schoelles, who was reassigned to another job at the end of last school year and has since announced her plans to retire at the end of the school year.

The guys who beat up "The Walker" — Who would brutalize John Kelly, who was famous for his seemingly nonstop treks along the highways of western Hernando County, during which he clearly never harmed a soul? Well, only true losers such as the three young men accused of playing a part in stalking him, beating him, taking his wallet and leaving him for dead in a ditch near State Road 50. The attack happened in 2007 but the most serious sentence, 45 years in prison, wasn't handed down to Jamie Lynn Tyson until May. Anthony Hawkins, who allegedly acted as the lookout, had earlier taken a plea deal for a juvenile sentence and, citing a lack of evidence, the state dropped charges against Michael Vann, who one prosecutor believed was the instigator of the attack. "The community needs to be protected," Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing said after sentencing Tyson.

The high and low points of 2009 in Hernando County 12/31/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 5:29pm]

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