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Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Marion players hold up the plaque they received for winning the 54th Annual Carbondale Holiday Tournament championship, on Friday, at SIU Arena.

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YEAR IN REVIEW | Top 10 News Stories
Chaos in Cairo, total solar eclipse, SIUC restructuring: These are The Southern's top moments of 2017

The news staff at The Southern voted on the biggest stories of 2017 for Southern Illinois. Here are the top 10 stories that defined the year in our region.

1. Chaos in Cairo

We’ve covered the plight of Cairo for more than two years, and in April, the situation in the state’s most southern city came to a head when HUD announced that residents of the run-down McBride and Elmwood housing complexes would have to move. HUD said the complexes would be destroyed.

The complexes, which have been a part of Cairo since World War II, house nearly 200 families.

This did not sit well with residents.

“Until you feel our reality, you can’t feel how we feel,” Kevin McAllister, a resident of Elmwood, said in a heated April meeting where HUD announced its plan.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Kevin McAllister demands answers during a resident meeting at which Housing and Urban Development officials announced they planned to relocate about 185 families from two 1940s-era public housing developments. The meeting was held at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Cairo Monday, April 10, 2017. 

Since the announcement, about half of the complexes’ residents have found new housing. But confusion and anger have been an underlying feeling for residents.

Around Thanksgiving, residents received a letter stating they “must relocate from Elmwood and McBride immediately” even though they were previously told that there is not a deadline by which they must vacate the complexes slated for demolition.

In response to the letter, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said, “Ideally, we’d like to relocate all the residents to better housing by the summer of 2018.”

In late November, HUD filed a complaint against former Alexander County Housing Authority managers James Wilson and Martha Franklin, alleging the two used federal public housing dollars for travel and gifts and submitted false documentation to HUD. HUD took over the ACHA in 2016.

The situation also prompted an August visit from HUD Secretary Ben Carson. The former Republican candidate for president toured the city and spoke at an event at the high school. He said one of the things he’s thought about is with more national exposure and a good marketing plan “would it be possible to help the rest of the nation to recognize the opportunity that exists in this area.”

Carson in Cairo: 'I think by the grace of God it’s possible to save this place'

CAIRO — During a visit to Cairo on Tuesday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said that in his career as a physician, he often took on “very, very difficult cases” including people others had deemed too far gone to save. Through creative approaches, rare procedures, “and by the grace of God,” he sometimes was able to save their lives, he said.

2. Eclipse

On Monday, Aug. 21, the eyes of the world were upon Carbondale and Southern Illinois.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

The solar eclipse reaches totality in the skies over Carbondale on Monday afternoon.

In Carbondale, the city had planned for a weekend full of activities before Monday’s big event, but it started out slow. But, by Sunday night and Monday morning, people chasing the Great American Eclipse arrived.

Based on crowd counts, Carbondale city officials estimated that the eclipse brought as many as 50,000 people to the city proper. And according to the Illinois Office of Tourism, 200,000 people traveled to the 16-county region for precious extra seconds of totality.

Local officials said they took note for the next solar eclipse, which comes April 8, 2024.

“The reality was, even though we had events going on, many people opted to arrive really late on Saturday, and so they didn’t even start interacting in the activities until sometime on Sunday, and then many visitors opted to just come in sometime on Sunday and either sleep in their car or do overnight tent camping. And of course we know that many just came in on Monday all by themselves. So that’s why I think that this is just a one-day event, possibly a one-day, one-night kind of thing,” said Cinnamon Wheeles-Smith, executive director of Carbondale Tourism.

All in all, it was a great event for Southern Illinois — even if a few unlucky people had the nearly-three-minute event covered by a cloud.

“We probably over-prepared a bit, and normally I’m not an advocate for over-planning, but in this case I think we had to, just because we didn’t know how many people were coming to Carbondale,” said City Manager Gary Williams. “But looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any differently.”

Thousands react with raw emotion to total solar eclipse at sold-out Saluki Stadium

CARBONDALE — As a strange darkness blanketed Saluki Stadium just after 1 p.m. Aug. 21, the thousands of people who filled the bleachers grew quiet and still. Then, as the moment of totality began, all at once, the crowd erupted — in applause, screams of joy, stomping of feet, pointing, hugging, impromptu laughter and even some tears.

3. State budget

In July, the Illinois House voted to override Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of a budget package, giving the state its first state budget in more than two years. It ended the nation's longest fiscal stalemate since at least the Great Depression.

Rauner rejected the measures because, he said, he saw no indication that the Democratic-controlled Legislature would send him the "structural" changes he's demanded. Those include a statewide property tax freeze, cost-cutting restrictions on compensation for injured workers, changes to pension benefits for state employees, and reforms making it easier for voters to merge or eliminate local governing bodies.

Rauner described the override vote as "another step in Illinois' never-ending tragic trail of tax hikes."

The income tax increase means individuals will pay 4.95 percent instead of 3.75 percent. The corporate rate jumps to 7 percent from 5.25 percent.

After more than two years without a budget, the struggle began to show in 2017. Credit-rating houses threatened to downgrade the state's creditworthiness to "junk," signaling to investors that buying state debt is a highly speculative venture.

The standoff had other effects as well. Road construction work shut down. Public universities were cut to the bone and faced a loss of academic accreditation. The United Way predicted the demise of 36 percent of all human-services agencies in Illinois by year's end.

At the time the budget was done, Illinois had a $6.2 billion annual deficit and $14.7 billion in overdue bills. Since, that number has gone down, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

And, there’s no guarantee that a budget agreement can be reached in 2018. The governor will make his budget address in February.

4. Butler to retire

On Dec. 1, Marion Mayor Robert Butler announced that he plans to retire Jan. 31. He has been the mayor since he was elected in April 1963, and is one of the longest serving mayors in both Illinois and the U.S. Among mayors still holding office, Butler is second to Charles E. Long of Booneville, Kentucky.

Since Butler has taken office, there is no doubt that Marion has grown exponentially. He refers to Marion as “The hub of the universe.”

The population of Marion was 11,274 when Butler took office in 1963. According to 2015 figures, Marion’s population stands at 17,803.

“I believe the structure and organization of the city and smooth manner in which city affairs are conducted is one of our greatest accomplishments,” Butler said in a story earlier this month. “The city was in complete and utter chaos when I became mayor.”

When Butler took over, the city also was in a deep financial crisis. As an example, Butler said the street superintendent could not get $1.25 credit at a local lumber yard to buy stakes for the city.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Marion Mayor Bob Butler reflects on 55 years in office following the announcement on Friday, Dec. 1, that he would be retiring at the end of January.

Look at Marion now.

When Butler leaves office at the end of January, Commissioner Anthony Rinella will take over. It will be the first time since John F. Kennedy was our president that someone other than Butler will be the mayor of Marion.

“I have thought of Marion as a special place. With that in mind, I have tried to help make that true,” Butler said.

5. Morthland College

In September, officials from the Illinois Board of Higher Education visited Morthland College in West Frankfort after the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year revoked the school's ability to access federal student aid funds and fined the college for an alleged "breach of fiduciary duty."

The visit meant that the college was to be the subject of an “official institutional investigation” based on a letter IBHE received from the U.S. Department of Education on Aug. 22.

Since then, the college has been subject to many issues including court decisions, tax sales, fines and liens.

Morthland College’s accrediting body, Transnational Association of Christian Colleges, changed its status in November to accredited under probation.

Tim Eaton, president of Transnational Association of Christian Colleges, said the move “basically is financial” and was also in part due to potential compliance issues with federal agencies. “We have a standard that requires that (those) participating in federal financial aid to be in compliance with the regulations,” he said. “What we’ve determined on putting the institution on probation is that there (is) possible noncompliance.”

Eaton said the year probation period is designed to allow maximum fairness to students. He said allowing the college at least the next academic year — no decisions will be made until the commission’s fall 2018 meeting — will let students nearing graduation to finish their coursework.

The college is still being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education as well as by the Illinois Board of Higher Education because of the recent emergency action.

bhetzler / The Southern File Photo 

Investigators from the Illinois Board of Higher Education arrive at Morthland College on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in West Frankfort to begin an institutional investigation detailed in a September letter from the IBHE to the school.

6. Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco

In February, the national news world was in West Frankfort for the story of Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco.

Provided by Tim Grigsby  

Carlos Hernandez Pacheco is pictured in this 2015 photo holding his youngest of three boys. 

Hernandez, 38, from Mexico, was arrested at his home in West Frankfort on Feb. 9 and held in a Missouri jail until the end of February. He was held over questions about his legal status in the U.S. Hernandez is the manager of La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in West Frankfort.

While he was in jail, letters of support from neighbors and business associates flooded in. The letters will be presented as part of his plea to the court for him to remain in the U.S. with his family, and the long list of letter-writers in his support include West Frankfort Mayor Tom Jordan, Fire Chief Jody Allen and Assistant Chief of Police Shawn Talluto.

Pacheco’s case highlights an interesting wrinkle in political psychology, as we wrote in February. The immigration debate that is often spoken of in abstract about the faceless millions takes on another meaning when it becomes about the immigrant one knows and loves.

“I would think that everybody has got to give a different thought to this,” said Tim Grigsby, owner of Simple Solutions Printing in West Frankfort and a close friend of Hernandez. “There’s good people and bad people all over the place. This guy here — he’s one in a million. He’s the whole deal.”

Many news outlets from throughout the United States picked up on the story — including the New York Times. In December, The Times came back to West Frankfort to host a forum about Pacheco and the many other issues that face Middle America.

Pacheco’s case is scheduled to be heard in 2021.

7. SIUC restructuring

For years, enrollment has been declining at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Because of this, new Chancellor Carlo Montemagno presented a reorganization plan after starting the job in mid-August. Montemagno’s plan was met with skepticism and support.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

SIU Chancellor Carlo Montemagno poses for a portrait in his office.

“Things aren’t getting better. And it’s quite scary,” he said. “You’ll hear a lot of discussion about how we need to discuss this more, how changes are happening too fast, how they’re ill-conceived. What I want to point you to is some work that’s been done in this university for a very, very long time.”

The chancellor’s plan would trim the university’s eight academic colleges down to five. Those colleges would contain 15 schools, which would house programs. Montemagno argues that his plan to eliminate the university’s 42 departments will allow for more interdisciplinary work and elevate the status of the university. A key element of the plan is the elimination of department chairs, which he contends would save about $2.3 million in administrative costs.

Now, there’s still a lot to be done as it comes to the chancellor’s plan. In fact, there’s going to be a lot more done in 2018.

Board chair Randal Thomas said it would take some time to review the hefty documents pertaining to the plan. “We have our homework to do,” he said.

Since Montemagno’s announcement outlining his plan, SIUC’s Faculty Association, the Graduate and Professional Student Council, and the Undergraduate Student Council all passed resolutions opposing the unilateral elimination of departments.

The chancellor has said he hopes to implement the changes July 1, 2018.

8. Montemagno hired as chancellor


In July, for the first time in nearly three years, Southern Illinois University Carbondale finally had a full-time, permanent chancellor after the Board of Trustees approved Carlo Montemagno as chancellor. Montemagno took over the Carbondale campus on Aug. 15.

Montemagno, who was one of six candidates to be considered for the role, was a professor of engineering at the University of Alberta's Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering and founder of the Ingenuity Lab for the Province of Alberta.

“SIU Carbondale is an institution that possesses the DNA of greatness. It is an institution with strong genes that enable opportunity, creativity and discovery,” Montemagno said when he was hired. “By engaging with the entire SIUC community — including faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends, the Southern Illinois community and industry — we will fully activate SIUC’s DNA to realize the possible.

“The jewel that is SIUC is bright, and I am confident that by working together we will make it brilliant.”

Brad Colwell, who was one of the finalists under consideration, served in the interim role since September 2015. He remained at SIU, becoming vice president for academic affairs for the SIU system.

“(Montemagno) is going to be a very strong champion for SIU Carbondale. Obviously, given his background, he wants to strengthen the roots of the university as a national research institution and is already talking about ways to do that, including bringing his own lab to the campus, or as much as we can,” Dunn said.

9. Feb. 28 tornado

On Feb. 28 — toward the end of winter — a tornado ripped through Elkville, Vergennes and other local communities, damaging property and tearing up homes.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Crews from Ameren Illinois and the Egyptian Electric Cooperative were out in force Wednesday morning in the Elkville area to repair downed power lines and broken power poles from the tornado that struck the area on Tuesday evening.

A week later, the National Weather Service in Paducah rated the tornado an EF-4. NWS said the tornado had estimated peak wind speed of 180 miles per hour and a path 50.4 miles long. The tornado killed one person in Perry County, Missouri, and injured 12.

The tornado set down at 7:55 p.m., 4.8 miles west-northwest of Perryville, Missouri. It lifted at 8:57 p.m., 1.8 miles southwest of Christopher.

In Southern Illinois, the storm damaged 46 homes, 12 of which were a total loss, according to a report from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency. Four Jackson County residents were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries from flying debris.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

A home damaged by storms that struck Elkville Tuesday night.

In Franklin County, Sheriff Donnie Jones said three homes were destroyed in Six Mile Township, which is near Mulkeytown. The majority of the damage was on Yellow Bank Road in the township. Two of the homes of were occupied, but there were no known injuries.

10. Interstate 57 issues

2017 was full of issues and fatal crashes that happened on a stretch of Interstate 57 from Mount Vernon to Cairo. At times, it seemed like there were crashes daily.

In fact, during one four-day stretch in October, there were five reported crashes.

The headlines this past year were littered with crashes, fires and accidents that occurred on the stretch of road — a number of the issues happened at the interchange at Interstate 24.

Illinois State Police has beefed up its presence on the interstate, but it hasn’t seemed to slow down the incidents. Just last week a fatal crash closed the interstate for a few hours.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Kevin McAllister demands answers during a resident meeting at which Housing and Urban Development officials announced they planned to relocate about 185 families from two 1940s-era public housing developments. The meeting was held at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Cairo Monday, April 10, 2017. 

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

The solar eclipse reaches totality in the skies over Carbondale on Monday afternoon.

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As bitter cold settles in, some things to keep in mind

CARBONDALE — As a deep cold settled in the region and shows no signs of leaving at least for the next week, there are several factors to keep in mind in terms of safety.

According to Friday’s National Weather Service six-day forecast, temperatures are not supposed to peak above freezing before Thursday and lows are forecast to dip as low as zero degrees.

According to a special weather statement from the National Weather Service office in Paducah, dangerously cold wind chill temperatures are forecast Saturday through Monday night, with wind chills from zero to 15 below zero will be common. However, in Southern Illinois, there was no precipitation expected to come with the frigid temperatures.

Terril Kaufmann, assistant fire chief for the Carbondale Fire Department, said as people try to heat their homes, there can be an added fire risk — especially with space heaters.

“This time of the year, if they are using space heaters or anything, keeping them spaced away from ignitable materials and making sure they are plugged in to not extension cords, but outlets, so they don’t overheat,” he said. This includes things like bedding, blankets and furniture among other potentially combustible items. He said this goes for any type of heater, from those heated by a light bulb to those powered by natural gas.

“Anything that puts off heat you definitely want to make sure there’s room around it,” Kaufmann said.

There were other methods of heating the house he warned against as well — namely using an open stove, as this can increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

For those who may not have access to a warm space this next week — namely the housing insecure — Patty Mullen, executive director of Good Samaritan House in Carbondale, said they will be lifting some of their restrictions as the mercury drops.

“When the weather dips down below freezing, we lift our policy on zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol,” she said. She said they will do their best to help anyone who comes to the door.

“Even if all our beds are full, we have cots and roll-away beds. We will put people where we can to make sure they are out of the weather,” Mullen said.

For those who who must go outside for prolonged periods of time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping in mind the body parts that are the most at risk for frostbite — the nose, ears, toes, cheeks, chin and fingers.

For those who must keep their animals outside, Jackson County’s Animal Control officer, Lloyd Nelson, said there are a few things that can be done to keep them safe. He said to make sure the animal has fresh water at least once, preferably twice, a day. Keep fresh straw in kennels and keep a shelter for the animal that is big enough for the animal, but not too big as it needs to be able to retain heat. Nelson also said creating a wind barrier on the north side of the pen is a good thing, too.

Nelson and Kaufmann both said ice is something to keep an eye on. Kaufmann said despite the recent cold temperatures, ponds still are not safe to walk on. Nelson said people should keep an eye on their pets — he said dogs can chase other animals out onto the ice and fall through. He said regularly animals are found under ice or during spring thaws, frozen.

Kaufmann said while they do not want to have to use it, the city is prepared with ice rescue training and equipment should the need arise.

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Budget impasse, politics, eclipse: Here are the AP's top Illinois stories of 2017

CHICAGO — The Illinois Legislature passed a long-overdue state budget this year and people in Southern Illinois got to witness a long-awaited total solar eclipse.

Those were among the state's biggest stories in 2017, a year that also saw disturbing violence, changes for some of Illinois' most notable people and more headlines about the Chicago Police Department.

Here are The Associated Press' Top 10 Illinois stories of 2017:


Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks during a news conference July 26 on the first day of a special session on education funding at the state Capitol in Springfield.

1. Illinois gets its first state budget since 2015 after Democrats in the Legislature, joined by roughly a dozen Republicans, including Murphysboro's Terri Bryant, override GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner's vetoes of a spending plan and income tax increase. The deal follows years of political infighting between Rauner and Democratic leadership that kept Illinois from getting a budget, tripling the state's overdue bill backlog to more than $15 billion, starving colleges and social service agencies of funding, and taking Illinois to the brink of becoming the first U.S. state to have its credit rating downgraded to "junk" status.

2. A Kentucky physician is dragged from a United Airlines flight at O'Hare International Airport after refusing to give up his seat to accommodate a crew member. Video of the incident sparks outrage at the Chicago-based airline and ramps up criticism over the treatment of passengers by U.S. airlines. United later reaches a settlement with the passenger, and the four Chicago aviation police officers involved in removing him are either fired or suspended.

3. The first total solar eclipse to sweep coast-to-coast across the U.S. in 99 years draws hundreds of thousands of people to areas of Southern Illinois located in the path of totality, where the sun is 100 percent blocked out by the moon. Eyes also turn skyward across the state and elsewhere for what, by all accounts, is the most-observed and most-photographed eclipse in history.

Richard Sitler, The Southern  

John and Etta McKenna of Chicago are enthralled as they view the eclipse at the moment of totality from Blue Sky Vineyards in Makanda on Monday, Aug. 21. It was the first time the couple has seen an eclipse.

4. The U.S. Justice Department issues a scathing report of civil rights abuses by Chicago Police Department, finding a long-standing pattern of officers using excessive force and an oversight system in which many accused of misconduct weren't investigated or disciplined. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Attorney General Lisa Madigan say the city will carry out reforms under federal court supervision, abandoning an initial deal with the Trump administration that envisioned no court role.

5. A Champaign man is charged in the disappearance and suspected death of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, a visiting University of Illinois scholar from China whose body hasn't been found. Federal authorities allege that Brendt Christensen, 28, a former U of I graduate student, was under surveillance when agents overheard him explaining that he kidnapped Zhang, who disappeared in June shortly after she stepped off a bus near campus. Christensen has pleaded not guilty.


This undated photo provided by the University of Illinois Police Department shows Yingying Zhang. Police said the FBI is investigating the disappearance of Zhang, a Chinese woman from Champaign, as a kidnapping. 

6. Illinois lawmakers overhaul the state's decades-old school funding system, increasing aid to all of Illinois' more than 800 districts and eliminating large disparities between rich and poor schools. The historic measure becomes law just as the academic year is starting, allaying fears among some administrators about how to keep classrooms open after Rauner vetoed an earlier education funding bill. Included in the compromise plan is $75 million in tax credits for people who contribute to private school scholarships.

James T. Hodgkinson, of Belleville, in a photo released by by the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department

7. A 66-year-old man from Belleville opens fire on Republican members of Congress at a baseball practice outside Washington, D.C, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others before he is shot and killed by police. Authorities say James T. Hodgkinson was a Bernie Sanders supporter with a deep anger toward President Donald Trump, and that he sold his business and motorcycle before heading to the Washington area in March, where he lived out of a cargo van.

8. A former Northwestern University microbiologist and an ex-Oxford University employee are charged with murdering 26-year-old hairdresser Trenton James Cornell-Duranleau, who was stabbed more than 70 times as part of what prosecutors say was a sexual fantasy played out by the two men. Wyndham Lathem and Andrew Warren flee Chicago and are the focus of a weeklong international manhunt that ends when they surrender to the authorities in California.

9. Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan announces she won't seek a fifth term in 2018. Madigan says it's time for her to "seek a new challenge," though she doesn't say what that will be. Candidates scramble to pursue the party's nomination in the March primary. They include former Gov. Pat Quinn and state Sen. Kwame Raoul.

10. The Rev. Jesse Jackson publicly discloses he was diagnosed in 2015 with Parkinson's disease and has been seeking outpatient care. The 76-year-old civil rights icon says he is dedicating himself to physical therapy to slow the disease's progress and vows to use his influence to help find a cure.