Change, often stormy, marks decade

January 16, 2010 9:55:00 PM



From triumph to disaster, the area has seen its share of headlines that still have impact. 


Many have earned the area national attention — for both the good and the bad. 


Here’s a look at some of the biggest stories of the past decade. 




Ravaged by storms 


In the past 10 years, Lowndes County alone has seen multiple storms and continues to recover from their wrath. 


In January 2008, an F3 tornado tore a vengeful path through Caledonia, leaving leveled houses, school buildings in rubble, twisted metal and broken glass in its path. 


Workers and concerned neighbors rallied around the town to help in recovery efforts.  


While many have repaired or rebuilt, including Caledonia schools, others still have yet to reclaim their Caledonia homes. Caledonia Church of Christ, which was left as nothing more than debris, has been rebuilt, bigger and better. And Lowndes County School District continues construction on a combination band-art-vo-tech building, along with a new middle school gym. 


In February 2001, straight-line winds tore across Lowndes County from Mayhew to Columbus, knocking down walls and destroying mobile homes, houses and an apartment building, and left behind $11 million in damage. 


In November 2002, a string of tornadoes traveled across Lowndes County, leaving home after home in ruins and one person dead. The storm also devastated the campus of Mississippi University for Women, which has continued to rebuild over the years. 




Obama in Columbus 


Then-Sen. Barack Obama electrified Columbus during a March 2008 appearance when he first made it clear publicly he was not interested in being vice president. 


When he made his appearance at Mississippi University for Women’s Pohl-Stark Recreation Complex, a crowd of hundreds of screaming fans welcomed him. Obama had more of a rock-star presence than that of a presidential candidate. Hundreds more waited outside, unable to get into the ticket-only event. 


By September 2008, Mississippi — often ignored during presidential elections — again was the center of attention as Barack Obama and John McCain debated at Ole Miss.  




Overturned convictions 


Two Noxubee County men were exonerated in February 2008 of two separate rape and murder cases, with help from The Innocence Project. 


Kennedy Brewer spent about 12 years behind bars for the 1992 murder and rape of 3-year-old Christine Jackson. Lavon Brooks spent 18 years in prison for the 1990 murder and rape of 3-year-old Courtney Smith. 


Justin Albert Johnson, then 51, of Brooksville, confessed to both crimes in 2008. 


The men were convicted based on DNA evidence and testimony from state medical examiner Steven Hayne, who faces numerous charges he faked DNA evidence and provided false testimony leading to convictions in several murder trials. 


Hayne also had testified during Tyler Edmons’ trial, when he was convicted of helping his half-sister, Kristi Fulgham, kill her husband. 


Edmonds’ conviction was overturned in November 2008, after he spent five years in prison, beginning when he was just 13. 




Racial unity, division 


In 2006, former Vice Mayor and Ward 1 Councilman Robert Smith became the first black mayor of Columbus, after the August resignation of former Columbus Mayor Jeffrey Rupp, who left to take a position at Mississippi State University. 


Smith, a Columbus businessman and former principal of West Lowndes Middle School, retained the seat for another term in 2009, pledging to work to bring racial reconciliation and unity to the city. 


And while Smith pledged unity, a neighboring county, for years, was getting attention for a racial divide. Eyes turned to Noxubee County when the Voter Rights Act of 1965 was used for the first time to defend the rights of white voters. 


Noxubee County Democratic Chairman Ike Brown was found guilty in 2007 of violating the Voter Rights Act. 


In 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the decision to bar him from running any primaries or participating in elections except to vote. 


The Republican-run U.S. Justice Department in 2005 sued Brown and the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee and alleged, among other charges, that absentee-ballot fraud is rampant as bogus votes are cast to give black candidates an advantage over whites. Brown has headed the Democratic Party in Noxubee County, which is 70-percent black, since 2000.  




Economic development, losses 


Developments have boomed at the Lowndes County Industrial Park, but the recent downturn also led to the fall and downsizing of many companies. 


With additions of companies like Paccar, Stark Aerospace, American Eurocopter, Aurora Flight Sciences, Talley Defense Systems and Severstal, the Lowndes County Industrial Park and area has seen billions of dollars worth of investment over the past decade. 


By 2009, the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, Columbus and Lowndes County, Starkville and Oktibbeha County and other regional partners began heavy work to establish the Golden Triangle Regional Global Industrial Aerospace Park, which includes much of the existing industrial park. 


While the area has seen its share of job loss, as well, and none seemed to resonate as much as the March 2007 closing of the Sara Lee plant. The former Bryan Foods plant had a long history in West Point, employing generations of workers. The closure idled 1,200 people. 




MUW saga continues 


Mississippi University for Women has been involved in a civil war for years, with alumni and presidents seemingly in a constant power struggle. The war seemed to climax when current W President Dr. Claudia Limbert disaffiliated from the former MUW Alumnae Association, which has supported it for more than a century. 


The Supreme Court upheld the president severing the university’s ties to the group, but they continue to support the university and have joined forces with the Limbert-formed MUW Alumni Association in The Friends of The W group. The group formed in an effort to save The W from being merged with Mississippi State University, as Gov. Haley Barbour suggested and to raise money for the school. The some 2,400-student college can’t afford huge slashes being imposed on its budget. 






Early in the decade, Columbus Air Force Base was thought to be vulnerable to the military Base Realignment and Closure process. The community rallied together to protect CAFB from 2005’s round of BRAC. 


A committee focused on demonstrating the unity between the city and the base, as well as focusing on CAFB ’s military importance as one of three pilot training bases. 


Education and quality of life issues were major concerns, though CAFB avoided being on the BRAC list. 


Immediate past CAFB Col. Dave Gerber made local education his No. 1 priority in the local community during his tenure in Columbus. Before his reassignment to the Pentagon in 2008, Gerber touted Columbus Municipal School District for receiving unitary status. 


CMSD now is the only area school district to be removed from a civil-rights era federal desegregation order. Gerber also pushed for countywide school choice. The county and city agreed to allow CAFB children a choice between Caledonia, where they are assigned by state law, and city schools, where the desegregation order assigned them prior to CMSD gaining unitary status. 




Mayberry, Miss. 


Columbus was poked fun at on CBS 48 Hours in 2000, during a story about a string of unsolved murders. 


Mack Fowler, George Wilbanks, Robert Hannah, Louise Randall and Betty Everett were slain in their Columbus homes. And local authorities had no strong leads in any of those cases. The earliest murder, of Fowler, occurred in July 1996. The most recent murder, of Everett, occurred in November 1998. 


Rather than shedding any light on the matter, 48 Hours, spent its time comparing Columbus to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and talking with a beautician and a cadre of her friends. 




Fire at Academy Crossing Apartments 


The fire at the Academy Cro