The top story of 2017 for Great Bend began when Police Chief Cliff Couch’s dispute with City Administrator Howard Partington became public, followed by the City Council’s suspension of the chief, and everything that was set in motion as a result. The “Stand With Chief Couch” movement included a Facebook page, blue support signs posted in front of homes throughout the city and hundreds of people attending city council meetings as the story unfolded.
During this time, Partington retired, city councilman Wayne Henneke resigned, and Couch was reinstated, only to quit to take a job in Athens, Tenn.
George Kolb was hired as interim city administrator and the search for a permanent city administrator is about to get underway.
Many other events were recorded in the pages of the Great Bend Tribune over the course of the year. The following summary, in no particular order, recalls a few of the year’s headlines.
Changing of the guard
There were other longtime civil servants who retired in 2017, including Fire Chief Mike Napolitano; Great Bend Public Library/Central Kansas Library System Director Harry Willems; and Barton County Road and Bridge Director Dale Phillips. Mike Allison announced he would not seek another term as mayor of Great Bend. New people stepped in to fill vacant positions. Often the promotions came from within.
Detective David Bailey was named chief of police, Captain Luke McCormick became the fire chief, engineering technician Darren Williams was promoted to the position of county works director, taking over part of Phillips’ former duties, and Gail Santy, a consultant at CKLS, took over for Willems. Barton County Solid Waste Director Phil Hathcock kept that title but was also named operations manager of Barton County, taking over some of the duties previously handled by Barton County Administrator Richard Boeckman. Boeckman resigned in 2016 and the county commission chose not to retain the position.
Jim Jordan, who had been elected Barton County treasurer in 2016, began his training and transition into the office, working with his predecessor, Kevin Wondra. He was officially sworn in in October.
With seats vacant on the council and a heightened interest in politics, voters elected four new Great Bend City Council members and a new mayor, who will all be sworn in on Jan. 8. Three Great Bend USD 428 Board of Education positions were also filled with newcomers in the Nov. 7 election. Deanna Essmiller, Jacqueline Disque and Donald Williams will all be sworn in this month. They replace Joyce Carter, Dr. Larry Kutina and Kevin Mauler, who all chose not to seek another term.
Great Bend schools
Although Great Bend USD 428 Superintendent Brad Reed retired at the end of 2016, he stayed on the payroll until the end of the fiscal year. Assistant Superintendent Khris Thexton spent half of the year as the interim superintendent, and officially became superintendent on July 1.
The board of education interviewed architects and hired SJCF Architect Group to help develop a master plan for future building projects.
Headed to Washington, D.C. (and other venues)
Great Bend’s own Dr. Roger Marshall was elected in November 2016 and joined the U.S. House of Representatives in January. After years of delivering babies at Great Bend Regional Hospital, Marshall is helping the Republican party deliver a new tax bill.
Other local folks in national news:
• In October, Pastor Joshua Leu from the First Christian Church of Great Bend participated in opening the House of Representatives with prayer, a time-honored tradition, at the request of Rep. Marshall.
• Austin Levingston, a college student from Great Bend, became a social media sensation in 2016 after posting a message to his idol, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. This past fall, he got to meet Phelps in person. Levingston, who falls on the Autism spectrum, was one of 30 Special Olympics athletes chosen to attend a swim camp put on by the Michael Phelps Foundation, and Phelps presented him with the Michael Phelps Foundation IM Awesome Award.
• Great Bend native and renowned international lawyer Ty Cobb was named to the Trump White House legal team.
• In November, Great Bend native Tiffiney Harms and the choir she directs were part of a premier performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Harms directs the Concert Choir from Central Christian College of Kansas in McPherson.
Natural disasters and fires
Nationally, 2017 had one of the most destructive Atlantic hurricane seasons ever, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria claiming lives and causing billions of dollars in damage.
In March, Kansas saw the largest wildfire in state history cause more than $80 million in damage.
Mother Nature also struck closer to home.
An ice storm hit Kansas in February and on May 16 a tornado roared through western Barton County, destroying several homes and causing over $650,000 in damages.
The National Weather Service rated the twister as an EF3 with top winds of 165 miles per hour. It cut a 300-yard-wide, 27-mile swath from Pawnee Rock to west of Hoisington.
There were 10 homes destroyed and many others touched, but only two minor injuries.
Transload facility ribbon cutting
With scores of massive white wind turbine components as a backdrop, officials cut the ceremonial ribbon for the Great Bend transload facility in June. The site, located in the Great Bend Industrial park west of town, is a vital element helping connect Kansas to the nation and the rest of the world, said Lt. Gov. Jeff Collier.
Kansas Transportation Secretary Richard Carlson commented, “What we are looking at now is a 21st Century business model. Freight plays an important part in moving our state’s economy and this facility is already providing infrastructure that will benefit the community and increase opportunity for freight shipping and cost effectiveness.”
Cottonwood Extension district
The Cottonwood Extension District No. 17 was formally approved in 2017, merging two Extension Councils in Ellis and Barton County. Donna Krug from the Great Bend office was named the interim District Director in May and the District Director beginning July 1.
The Cottonwood Extension District includes a staff of seven agents and two office professionals. Its goals include providing research-based information to help improve the quality of life of the individuals in the service area.
Elks Lodge closes
The Great Bend Benevolent Protective Order of Elks Lodge 1127 announced it will close its lodge home at the first of the new year. The cavernous 34,000-square-foot building at 1120 Kansas Ave., built in 1955, is for sale.
The local order was born over a century ago, when it boasted 400 members, a number that jumped to over 1,600 by the 1940s.
However, when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008, the roster was down to 250.
Today, there are only 115 men and women who belong to the storied fraternal organization.
“There are just no young people coming in who want to be members,” said Cherie Jacobs, the lodge’s current exalted ruler. “But, we’re not alone. Other organizations are having the same problem.”
The hall was a venue for wedding dances, fundraisers and other special events over the years.
In January of 2018, lodge members may decide to keep the local charter but attend meetings at the Russell club. Also, after their building sells, they may look to buy or lease a smaller location in Great Bend.
Local improvement, zoo news
“There are a lot of good things going on,” Great Bend Interim City Administrator George Kolb said in October.
In the coming year, look for improvements at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo, the Sunflower Rod and Custom Association Drag Strip and the Great Bend Municipal Airport.
Elsewhere, there is the ongoing water line replacement, the expansion of Eighth Street between Grant and McKinley and the pending work at 10th and Grant.
Great Bend residents voted in November to renew the quarter-cent city sales tax that goes toward street repairs and improvements.
The zoo lost some beloved animals in 2016, including Sunny Delight, a Bengal tiger, and Bonnie, a North American Black Bear. But it also saw some additions: two lion cubs and a Lar gibbon. Plans continue for expansion of the grizzly bear exhibit, a new bison exhibit, and a winter shed for the alligators.
The Birds Befriended program, a decade-old partnership between the zoo and the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, came to an end in 2017 due to funding cuts at the state level and plans to change the mission of the correctional facility. The program allowed inmates with good behavior to care for exotic birds such as parrots and cockatoos that were former pets needing new homes. When the program ended, the zoo took back five birds, said Sara Hamlin, zoo curator.
For the first time in 99 years, a total solar eclipse occurred across the entire continental United States, on Monday, Aug. 21.
The total solar eclipse reached northeast Kansas at 1:02 p.m. and exited at 1:09 p.m. Barton County was in the 90-percent band.
The Great Bend Tribune gave away hundreds of special glasses for safely viewing the partial eclipse here. There were watch parties at Barton Community College, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, the Great Bend Public Library and other venues.