By Bobby Ross Jr., Dec. 31, 2009
Ten years ago, I spent the last night of the millennium on Y2K duty at The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s major metropolitan daily.
For the next day’s front page, I wrote:
As the planet Earth’s calendars rolled, hour by hour around the globe, to a neatly even Jan. 1, 2000, a computer bug known as Y2K was supposed to wreak havoc on Oklahoma and the world.
But this bug, it seems, had little bite.
The New Year arrived with more of a whimper than a bang, at least as far as Y2K was concerned.
It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since then.
In keeping with my journalistic DNA, I compiled a list of my personal Top 10 stories of the decade:
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As a child, I dreamed of growing up to be a baseball play-by-play announcer. I never realized that dream. But I did make it to the radio booth — with the earphones on my head during a real major-league game — when I profiled longtime Texas Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel for The Associated Press in 2003. I also found a way inside the Houston Astros clubhouse (writing first about team chaplain Gene Pemberton and later coach/manager Cecil Cooper) and made it to spring training with the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, Fla. What a thrill.
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Thirty minutes before welcoming listeners to “the beautiful Ballpark in Arlington,” Eric Nadel and his partner, Vince Cotroneo, swing open the windows of the Texas Rangers’ air-conditioned radio booth overlooking home plate.
A brisk, 93-degree breeze rattles stat sheets and blows open the pages of the “Complete Baseball Record Book.”
And the sounds and smells of the ballpark rush in: the voices of the gap-toothed boys begging A-Rod and company for autographs; the sweet aroma of $1 Hot Dog Night; the wind-blown smoke from the fireworks that erupt after each Ranger home run.
“You don’t have the feel of the game if you don’t open the windows,” said Nadel, 52, in his 25th season calling games for a perennial cellar dweller that has won one playoff game in its history.
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As foreign reporting goes, this is the one country where I have traveled that seemed more like a 51st U.S. state. As a proud American, I mean that as a compliment. And yes, as you study America’s neighbor to the north more closely, you become more aware of cultural and political differences. In 2009, I was privileged to travel to three provinces — Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta — to write stories for The Christian Chronicle’s series on Churches of Christ in Canada. An upcoming reporting trip will take me to British Columbia.
GRAVELBOURG, Saskatchewan — Just off the main highway, behind the Snack Shack Eatery and the GravelBowl Lanes & Billiards, sits the Church of Christ.
A bright green John Deere tractor rumbles down a nearby street as an older couple watch closely from their front porch.
“Everyone Welcome,” says a sign outside the church’s newly renovated building.
In more than a few places in rural Canada, Churches of Christ are dying.
But in this historically French Catholic prairie town, the 100-member church is thriving.
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8. George W. Bush
Here’s another childhood dream I never realized: working as a White House correspondent and flying all over the world on Air Force One. In my time with AP in Tennessee and Texas, however, I covered presidential events, wrote about questions related to Bush’s National Guard service, explored “How would Jesus vote?” and traveled to tiny Crawford, Texas, to report on a furor caused by the Republican president’s hometown newspaper endorsing Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Signs at the bank, the cafe and the Bottlinger Grain bins all declare Crawford – the proud home of the president’s ranch – as “Bush Country.”
So when the Lone Star Iconoclast, a tiny weekly that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed Democrat John Kerry, there was hell to pay.
Local businesses pulled their ads and banned the paper from their stores.
“We felt a little betrayed,” said Larry Nelson, manager of the Crawford Country Style, a downtown shop that sells “Luvya Dubya” trinkets and other Bush memorabilia.
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I profiled Joel and Victoria Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, the Ed Youngs and former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham during my time with AP. For The Oklahoman and later Religion News Service, I wrote about Craig Groeschel and the explosive growth of satellite campuses at Life Church in Oklahoma. For Christianity Today, I tackled stories on megachurch seminaries and pastor training.
HOUSTON (AP) — On their first date, Joel Osteen and his future bride, Victoria, went out to watch a Houston Rockets basketball game at the team’s home, then called The Summit.
Two decades later, the fast-growing megachurch that Osteen pastors is spending $78 million to turn the Rockets’ former arena – later renamed the Compaq Center – into its new spiritual home, with 16,000 seats, two waterfalls and plenty of television cameras for Lakewood Church’s nationally broadcast services.
The 41-year-old minister chuckles at the coincidence as he stands in the arena where true love was born and where he predicts as many as 100,000 people will someday worship every weekend.
“God’s got a sense of humor,” Osteen said, talking over the buzz of heavy machinery transforming locker rooms into children’s classrooms. “I never dreamed as a kid that this would be our place.”
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My Christian Chronicle colleague Erik Tryggestad is the world traveler and international reporting expert on our staff, with datelines from more than 25 countries on his resume. But this summer I had the opportunity to travel to Africa twice — first to Ghana and then to South Africa — as part of the Chronicle’s “Global South” series. What an amazing experience.
ACCRA, Ghana — Through an open window, the familiar voice came.
From a blaring television at an auto parts store next door, President Barack Obama’s recent speech to Ghana’s Parliament drifted into the Nsawam Road Church of Christ auditorium.
“America will be with you every step of the way, as a partner, as a friend,” the nation’s first black president said.
In his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, Obama promised U.S. support to help Africa build a better political and economic future.
At that exact moment, several hundred Christians were gathered inside the Nsawam Road church building to celebrate a different kind of partnership — one with eternal ramifications.
“As significant as Obama’s visit is … what we’re doing has a far more staggering impact for Africa because we’re dealing with souls,” said Deon Fair, a member of the Richardson East Church of Christ in Texas and a key figure in efforts to develop a Christian liberal arts university in this small coastal nation.
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While Canada and Africa were new to me, I have made a number of trips to Mexico over the years — both personally and professionally. For AP, I joined a charismatic church group that spent a week at an orphanage in Juarez in 2004. For the Chronicle, I followed a Missouri church group as it built a church north of Saltillo in 2008 and ventured to Tijuana in 2009 to report on church mission groups’ concerns about border security.
TIJUANA, Mexico — Three times a week, San Diego resident Steve Mock crosses the U.S.-Mexico border to teach preaching students in this violence-scarred city of about 1.5 million souls.
Mock, an instructor at the Latin American Christian Institute in the heart of Tijuana, recognizes the dangers involved.
“I mean, I’m aware of it,” said Mock, a member of the Canyon View Church of Christ in San Diego. “There were almost 900 people murdered in Tijuana last year. But most of them are drug cartels fighting each other.”
Still, Mock said he understands why a number of American church groups canceled annual spring break mission trips to Mexico, while other congregations reassess scheduled summer efforts.
“I have not tried to talk anybody out of it who made the decision not to come this year,” Mock said. “I mean, I still go on. I don’t worry. … But it would just be a disaster if some student or some college kid or parent was shot in the crossfire somewhere between gangs.”
A 2-year-old offensive on drug traffickers by Mexican President Felipe Calderon has caused gang violence to surge along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border and claimed more than 7,000 lives in the last 15 months. The 843 killings in Tijuana last year were more than twice 2007’s total of 337.
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4. Capital Punishment
During my time as the state prisons reporter for The Oklahoman, I witnessed four executions. My most memorable story involved a case of an inmate whose execution did not draw much media attention. I decided to use this case as an opportunity to write about a “typical” execution day in Oklahoma. With AP in Tennessee, I interviewed a seven-time convicted murderer and was scheduled to witness his execution before he resumed his appeals at the last minute.
McALESTER, Okla. – At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.
Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.
Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.
The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes – a prison shirt and jeans – in which to die.
After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.
Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him – or in him – that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.
Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.
After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.
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3. Iraq War
When the war started in 2003, AP dispatched me to a church in Nashville where members prayed as President Bush announced the U.S. attack. Later, I covered war protesters and the funeral for the first Tennessee soldier killed. Often, with AP in Tennessee and Texas and even after joining the Chronicle, the duty fell on me to interview loved ones of young men — and women — killed in action. In one case, I discovered that a young woman had lost both her father and her husband in the war. The story that sticks out the most to me concerned a World War II veteran in Corpus Christi, Texas, who lost his son in Iraq.
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — Esequiel Perez never bragged about his service in World War II. If anything, the soft-spoken veteran downplayed his role.
“I didn’t go into too much combat or anything,” says Perez, 77.
Yet his children – Yolanda, Rosa Anna, Sandra, Joel, Debra, Hector and Zeke – grew up knowing that their father had done his part to defend the world, and why.
In the Perez family, soldiers’ sacrifice was honored and the nation’s freedom celebrated. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were times for reverence. When the children erected a flag pole in the front yard, Esequiel welcomed it – but warned that the Stars and Stripes must not touch the ground and should be illuminated if flown at night.
“That’s how proud my dad is of this country,” said Rosa Anna Garza, 48.
He also wanted an easier life for his children than he had – he still had nightmares involving foxholes and blames grenades for his hearing problems – so he never pushed them to join the military.
For No. 6 child Hector, though, the Army beckoned.
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2. Sept. 11, 2001
Just six years after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which consumed my Oklahoman colleagues and me for months and even years, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought back all kinds of emotions. We dealt with those emotions by focusing on the news and writing about the terrible events of that day, this time from hundreds of miles away. I produced four stories on Sept. 11, a day that will remain forever a giant blur in my mind. Later, I wrote about Oklahomans reaching out to New Yorkers. With AP in Nashville, I did a package of 9/11 anniversary stories in 2002.
The scene looked so familiar. Too familiar.
The smoke. The chaos. The rescue workers.
Gary Woodbridge, whose wife, Ronota, died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, had seen it all before.
“Watching some of the video of them trying to save people and help people, a lot of it reminded me of what we saw in Oklahoma City,” the Guthrie man said. “The only difference… is the patches on the uniforms say New York City instead of Oklahoma City.
“I kind of feel like it’s an attack on America instead of what (Timothy) McVeigh did on the government… Emotionally, it’s kind of hard.”
For Woodbridge and others who experienced the bombing – the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until Tuesday – the latest tragedy brought all the horrible memories flowing back.
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1. Hurricane Katrina
The costliest hurricane to strike the United States — and one of the deadliest — occurred just months after I joined the Chronicle in 2005. In the immediate aftermath, I flew on a private plane with Don Yelton and others from WFR Relief Ministries to survey damages in Louisiana and Mississippi. A few months later, I returned to New Orleans to report on the still-immense needs among church members. In all, I made a handful of visits to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast after the storm. My one-year anniversary story featured Katrina survivors Charles and Angela Marsalis, who relied on their faith as they overcame the storm.
NEW ORLEANS — “Girl, you better get out of town!”
Angela Marsalis’ mother made it clear what she thought her daughter should do that weekend as Hurricane Katrina — a Category 5 storm packing 160 mile-per-hour winds — threatened a direct hit on New Orleans.
In a perfect world, Angela — a substitute teacher who helped each day with an after-school program at church — would have done exactly as her mother urged. She, her husband, Charles, and their boys would have joined the clogged procession of vehicles fleeing the tempest predicted to make landfall Monday morning.
But Charles — who worked 12-hour days on a tugboat yet still volunteered most mornings at a Christian outreach center — had just spent $2,000 to fix the family’s blue 2000 Dodge Caravan, wiping out their bank account.
Jittery over the calamity that could befall the bowl-shaped metropolitan area, Angela begged her husband: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
But her practical side knew they lacked the cash to keep their gas tank full. They simply could not afford to heed the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order.