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Top Stories 2017: Stories of storms, tragedy, perseverance and historic events

Staff Reports • Updated Dec 30, 2017 at 8:00 AM

From stories of tragedy to inspiration and a marriage proposal in between, the stories that shaped 2017 in Wilson County will not soon be forgotten. 

It was a year that included a historic solar eclipse, and the world turned its attention to Middle Tennessee to watch it. There were tragedies such as a Las Vegas shooting, where a Mt. Juliet couple was too close for comfort, and a surprise tornado that ripped through a church and homes in Gladeville. 

Our hearts were touched by a Mt. Juliet High School senior who garnered attention for his tenacity through affliction and a Lebanon first-grade teacher who won big on a popular television game show. 

So, without further adieu, we give you the first part of the top 17 stories of 2017 as compiled by The Lebanon Democrat staff. The second part of the countdown will appear in Tuesday’s edition of The Democrat. 

17. Total eclipse of the heart…and she said yes

Girlfriend and boyfriend Brooke Newton and Ajay Chanayil, of Studio City, Calif. flew into Nashville and arrived in Lebanon for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, and they left engaged to be married.

Newton is an actress, and Chanayil is a lawyer for Netflix. Newton went to space camp as a child and was excited to see the eclipse in the path of totality. The couple chose the Wilson County Fair to watch the cosmic event.

What Newton didn’t know was Chanayil planned to propose to her just after the totality. The ring belonged to his mother.

So as things began to return to normal and fireworks lit the darkened sky above the James E. Ward Agricultural Center, Chanayil got down on one knee and popped the question.

And, of course, Newton said yes.

16. Commission approves $1.55 million for new high school

The Wilson County Commission approved $1.55 million in November for Wilson County Schools to conduct design services for a potential new high school in Mt. Juliet.

The group also amended the resolution to require the district to put the project out for bid before it approves funds for construction. The design authorization does not signify the groups’ commitment to spend $110 million for a new high school, which is the estimated cost. 

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said the county was on schedule with the district’s building plan, introduced two years ago, and Thursday’s $1.5 million commitment would keep the county on par with the plans if the commission agrees to fund the Mt. Juliet high school in the first half of next year.

Hutto said Maynard noted the county could use funds in the special purpose school tax fund and replenish the money through the bonds for the schools. Hutto also outlined a plan for discussion next year.

He said he would bring information with details about the estimated $110 million price tag to commissioners in January, followed by presentations in February and March on possible funding mechanisms through potential tax increases from various sources.

“In May, you would know everything and can sit down and talk about them and make a decision. At that time, they would be done with the design phase, and it would be able to go out to bid,” Hutto said.

The timeline would leave about 26 months for construction before the targeted opening in 2020.

15. Historic November tornado hits Gladeville

The first tornado in recorded history to hit Wilson County on Nov. 18 struck Gladeville and significantly damaged a church and a few homes.

National Weather Service forecasters confirmed the EF-1 tornado Nov. 19 after on-site surveys.

The tornado touched down at 4:47 p.m. and began as a weak EF-0 tornado in far southeastern Davidson County, where it caused mostly minor tree and roof damage before it crossed Percy Priest Lake.

Forecasters said the most significant damage was found in Gladeville, where dozens of trees were snapped or uprooted, and several outbuildings were destroyed. A few homes sustained roof damage, especially in the Stonefield neighborhood.

The tornado lifted at 5:05 p.m. after it hit the Glade Church and knocked off the steeple, which fell into the church. A heating and air-conditioning unit was possibly lifted off Gladeville Elementary School. A baseball field near the Glade Church was also significantly damaged. 

Also in Gladeville, the tornado lifted a shed and threw it into a vehicle. Homes were damaged and a power line was reported down on Cobblestone Way. A diner on McCrary Road was also damaged.

Forecasters said the 100-yard-wide tornado had a path of 10.1 miles with estimated peak winds of 100 mph. No injures were reported.

14. Mt. Juliet woman details Las Vegas shooting

A Mt. Juliet woman recalled the moments before, during and after the Las Vegas shooting that killed more than 50 people Oct. 3. 

Intrigue Athletics owner Ginger Raines and her husband, Brad, traveled to Las Vegas to celebrate her birthday, and although they did not attend the now infamous concert, they felt the impact and saw the chaos created by the shooting near where they stayed.

At least 59 people were killed and more than 520 others injured after a gunman opened fire Sept. 30 at a country music festival opposite the Mandalay Bay hotel and resort on the Las Vegas Strip, authorities said.

Police said the suspect, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, a resident of Mesquite, Nevada, was killed after a SWAT team burst into the hotel room from where he was firing at the crowd.

“We were in the lobby of the Planet Hollywood,” said Raines, who said it was just after 10 p.m. in Las Vegas. “Brad and I were sitting at a card table, and a lady came up to our table and said there is an active shooter at the Mandalay Bay. We not quite sure we heard her just right, and seconds later, a mob of people came running into our lobby,” said Raines, who said she could hear the gunshots.

At about 12:30 a.m., after two hours of hiding in the hotel, Raines notified their loved ones they were alive and safe. About 3 a.m., the couple watched the situation for the first time.

“It didn’t ease any worries or any fear of what people were doing,” said Raines, who said she was glad to know it wasn’t an organized group attack.

“This man is a monster, and what he did was horrible. There will never be a good explanation for it, but there are also a lot of wonderful people here. He’s not the majority. He is a small piece compared to what I know everyone to be like,” Raines said.

13. Lebanon teacher wins big on Wheel of Fortune

A Lebanon teacher waited five years to make her appearance on Wheel of Fortune in September, and the wait paid off in a major way as she racked up nearly $60,000 in winnings.

Katie Kirby, Coles Ferry Elementary School first-grade teacher, had more than $24,000 in cash and prizes going into the bonus round.

And when she correctly guessed “fresh papaya” on the bonus puzzle, her winnings jumped to $59,150 in cash and prizes, including a Mazda CX-5.

“It was wonderful. I loved it. I had so much fun,” Kirby said.

Kirby’s appearance on the show came two weeks later on her husband’s birthday. The couple and her parents went to California for the show. Kirby said her nerves disappeared right before show time when she did something she thinks propelled her to her big night.

“I prayed, and I knew God had me, and he would guide me through the outcome,” said Kirby, who said her nerves immediately vanished.

“It was crazy. If you look at the tape, I shake my head as I keep winning, because I couldn’t believe what was happening. I figured I would just appear on the show and get the $1,000 for being on there,” she said.

Kirby credited God for her performance and good fortune on the show.

“God was with me the whole time. He allowed me to think clearly, and I was able to do what I did,” she said.

12. Don Fox Park wading pool closed indefinitely

The Don Fox Community Park’s wading pool closed in May due to structural issues. 

Jimmy Floyd Family Center director Tim Hill cited a faulty pool liner as the reason for the closure. 

“It’s got a liner that was put there in 1994, and instead of plastering it, we decided to put a new liner in there, and it’s been about 12 years since we’ve done that,” said Hill. “The liner ripped in two or three places over the winter, and when we filled it up, the whole liner came up and floated on top.”

Families received access to the Jimmy Floyd Center until the pool re-opened about a month later. 

11. Wilson County judge fed up with DCS leniency

Wilson County Judge Barry Tatum sentenced a boy in September to be sent to the main Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ headquarters in downtown Nashville after Tatum became fed up with the agency’s inability to find a secure facility for the boy.

The boy was taken into custody during the early morning hours of Sept. 15 after a Wilson County deputy saw a stolen vehicle at an abandoned house in Lebanon.

The deputy went around to the back of the house, where he saw the suspect run away. After a brief foot chase, the boy was arrested.

The incident was associated with a number of juveniles taken into custody in August who were linked to multiple car thefts. Two of the juveniles were escapees from the Department of Children’s Services when the auto thefts took place.

“This juvenile has repeatedly escaped from the custody of the Department of Children’s Services within the past year, five times to be exact, and I have some concerns of the continuous problems that DCS is having on the number of juveniles that are escaping from their placements at an alarming rate,” said Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan. 

When DCS reported it didn’t have any open beds in a secured facility, Tatum ordered the boy sent to DCS headquarters to be kept until a bed opened. In sending the boy to the DCS headquarters, Tatum also sent the organization a message.

Two days after Tatum’s ruling, Mt. Juliet police found a 16-year-old runaway in the parking lot of a Red Lobster in Greenbrier.

“We’re not doing them justice,” said Bryan. “These kids need help; it needs to stop.”

10. Mt. Juliet’s Jalan Sowell tells his own story of inspiration on ESPN

July 

When life handed Jalan Sowell a lemon, he turned it into lemonade.

A condition called chronic pulmonary embolism all but ended the football-playing career of the Mt. Juliet High School senior. But the 16-year-old had a summer “work”cation when a lot of sports fans might prefer to a trip to the beach or Disney World.

CPE is the clotting of an artery in the lungs, which has traveled from elsewhere in the body through the bloodstream. Blood-thinning medication treats the condition, but it keeps Sowell from seeing most action on the field.

“I have shortness of breath, get real sweaty, just pass out,” Sowell said of the symptoms.

But he returned in time to take a pass 60 yards to set up the game-winning score in the playoffs against Collierville. An episode during the following spring practice sidelined him during the 2016 season.

His senior season was limited to holding for place kicks and signaling plays in from the sideline, which segued into his next chosen career, coaching.

Sowell has committed to the University of Memphis where he’ll be a student-coach majoring in either sports management or communications.

“You can do a lot with a communications degree,” said Sowell, who got some first-hand experience in the field through an internship of sorts with ESPN. 

In fact, this interview was conducted from Bristol, Conn., where he is involved in post-production work on his story, which aired on SportsCenter in July.

The “My Wish” series is part of a partnership with the Make-A-Wish foundation, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions.

“Vanderbilt turned my name in, and [Make-A-Wish] contacted me,” Jalan Sowell said. “Instead of meeting a famous athlete or person, I wanted to share my story to inspire others to never give up.”

Recently, Sowell was named an honorary captain of the Music City Bowl. In this role, Sowell will participate in all of the events surrounding the bowl – including accompanying FAMC president and CEO Dan Crockett for the pre-game coin toss.

Watch out for the rest of the countdown Monday on the Lebanon Democrat. 

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