HANFORD — 2020. The year that absolutely no one will forget. Littered with multiple divisive issues, none bigger than COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, the year had multiple memorable moments in Kings County.

After hours of combing through hundreds of stories I wrote, here are my top 10 of 2020.

1. Hundreds attend Black Lives Matter protest at Hanford Civic Auditorium

HANFORD — With Hanford being a staunch and overtly conservative area, organizers for the Black Lives Matter protest in June were hoping for 50 people to show up. Instead, what transpired was a sea of support at the Hanford Civic Auditorium with more than 500 people standing in solidarity for one cause.

“It’s beautiful,” Ashley Neely, an organizer, said on June 6. “When you live here in Hanford or places in the Central Valley, you feel like you can’t speak up. You feel like you’re going to get backlash from everybody. It was scary to even do the protest, but every day I saw more and more people say they’re going to come.”

The protest was in response to the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The protesters took to the street to march while chanting “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd” and “I can’t breathe.” Former Representative TJ Cox, Hanford Police Chief Parker Sever and then-Hanford Mayor John Draxler were a few of the notable people in attendance.

Dozens of protesters shared their experiences with racism and a moment of silence was held. The event was one of multiple Black Lives Matter protests in the Central Valley.

There was no doubt the impact Black Lives Matter movement had in 2020. Not only did Black lives become acknowledged in the country, but they were also embraced.

Polls from Pew, N.O.R.C., Civis Analytics and Kaiser Family Foundation showed anywhere from 15 million to 26 million participated in the Black Lives Matter movement making it one of the largest movements movements in the history of the United States.

For the reasons listed above and many others, this was my No. 1 story of 2020.

2. A new norm: COVID-19 continues to affect local businesses

HANFORD — This one could almost be deemed as 1A with both issues devouring a huge portion of American lives in 2020.

The Hanford Sentinel spoke with six businesses one week after Governor Gavin Newsom had issued the first stay-at-home order. What we found on March 26 was a mix of adaptation and closures.

Jessica Szalai, owner of Beautifully Damaged LLC, had her store severely impacted by the governor’s order. She switched to posting her inventory on her website, Facebook and Instagram to try and generate sales. But still her revenue slipped to about 10% of what it normally was.

“I don’t want to be irresponsible,” Szalai said on March 26. “I want to follow the orders, but this is our only source of income, so if I have to be in here for at least pickups, then I guess I could do that.”

Others like Blue Door Massage & Spa owner Ayla Tidwell had to close their doors altogether due to the nature of their business.

“It’s tough, it’s a little emotional because I care about them a lot,” Tidwell said. “They might work for me, but really that’s not how I direct my employees. I see them more as family. … We’re a team.”

One thing was clear in 2020, COVID-19 touched just about every aspect of life. Still dealing with the coronavirus now, hopefully 2021 will be the year we celebrate the death of this virus.

3. Nearly 200 people rally for Vanessa Guillen in peaceful demonstration

HANFORD — An extension of multiple protests this year, Vanessa Guillen was another figure that spurred change.

Army Spc. Guillen was a Fort Hood soldier who went missing in April. Her remains were later found on June 30.

“We have a sister who was gone and this congress, this president, this administration did nothing to find our sister, and that should anger you,” Emily Burnias, a United States Navy veteran, passionately vented into the microphone on July 5. “Not as a Latina, not as an American, not as a white, Black, as a human being that should anger because she did not come home.”

Approximately 200 people turned out for the protest and marched just like during the Black Lives Matter protest.

“We are a military community … and we felt that it was important to make it known that our community will not stand for this type of incident, for this type of behavior,” Ivette Stafforini, who helped organize the demonstration, said. “Statistics show that this happens way too often and it is not acceptable for mothers and fathers to send their daughters and sons off to the military only to be sexually assaulted and dismissed when they file a report, if they ever do.”

The protest was another example of the civil unrest and heightened awareness of the injustices minorities suffer.

4. CIF cancels state basketball championship games

HANFORD — One of the initials signals that COVID-19 had reared its ugly head to not only California, but the Central Valley. The California Interscholastic Federation canceled the CIF State Basketball Championship games on March 12.

The games were scheduled to take place March 13-14 at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. Sierra Pacific, who was searching for its second State championship in three years, had its chance wiped away.

“What I said to them today was that I’m disappointed for them, but so proud of them and they are truly champions,” Sierra Pacific coach Amy Bush said via phone call on March 12.

In a statement released, the CIF said, “This decision was made after careful deliberation and in the primary interest of protecting the health and safety of our member schools, fans, and most importantly, our student-athletes.”

The cancellation was the beginning of what would eventually become the suspension of in-person classes and put all sports on hold. Not too long after, distance learning became the mainstay for the rest of the year and high school athletics have yet to resume.

5. Former Hanford mayor makes one last visit to hometown

HANFORD — One of the best feel-good stories of 2020 involved a former mayor and one last trip back to Hanford.

On Sept. 22-23, 96-year-old Gordon Duffy visited Hanford for the first time in two decades and for what he called the final visit of his life. The former mayor of Hanford made the trip with his son, Brian, and visited an old classmate and several places he used to frequent.

On what it meant to have his son by side on his final trip to Hanford, Gordon said on Sept. 23, “A great deal. It means a great deal to my son to be able to come back and look at his roots.”

“I had a really good childhood growing up here and it brought back a lot of those memories,” Brian, 60, said. “Just looking at the house that I grew up in … and we were reminiscing about how when I was, gosh I don’t know, four or five years old, I was helping him put sprinklers in at this house. A lot of really good memories. I remember Hanford very fondly.”

6. Sierra Pacific celebrates seniors with drive-thru graduation

HANFORD — Sierra Pacific’s graduation on June 4 was a sign of the times.

The eighth annual Commencement Exercises were transitioned to a drive-thru style graduation with cars inching through campus to celebrate the more than 200 Golden Bears who received their diploma.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for us to see the kids and celebrate them and just congratulate them one more time,” Sierra Pacific Principal Darin Parson said at the time. “It’s been really difficult, but this kind of culmination today, to be able to do something like this, it’s still really pretty special.”

Students were allowed two cars per family and cars were decked out with balloons, signs and various other decorations to celebrate their graduates. Teachers, who hadn’t seen their students in more than two months, lined the sidewalk and cheered for their students.

The last day students had attended in-person classes was March 13, but they got final special moment on campus.

“They’ve been extremely resilient through this whole thing and done a fabulous job,” Parson said. “Their resiliency is what I’ll remember.”

7. Longtime official 'Wink' Winckelmann remembered for excellence

HANFORD — Rainer Otto Winckelmann brought a high level of officiating to sports for more than 40 years.

“If anybody knew the rules of officiating, it was Wink Winckelmann,” Tom Dowd, commissioner of USA Softball of Central California, said in July.

The longtime umpire, referee and official — known to friends and family simply as “Wink” — passed away at his home on May 10 from complications due to end stage pancreatic cancer. He was 69 years old.

By all accounts, Winckelmann had a relentless devotion to officiating.

“For me, I was like, ‘Dad, you’re not making very much money. You put way more hours than you get paid,’” Jamie Dugo, one of Wink’s three children, said. “But now that I meet everybody, I just think that was extended family to him and he just loved umpiring. It was just a passion of his.”

Wink’s friend, Mike Phelps, recalled how he got Wink into officiating by challenging him to try the job. Wink initially laughed off the comment, but a couple weeks later, he went to Phelps and said, “Yeah, I’d like to actually try that.’

Four decades later, he was one of the best to ever take the field, court or field.

8. Hundreds of cars surprise veteran for 95th birthday

HANFORD — One of the more recent stories to make the list was Roy Harmon’s 95th birthday surprise.

Harmon, a Navy veteran of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War, was given a drive-by birthday surprise with more than 300 cars on Dec. 13.

“It was mind-boggling to me,” Harmon said. “I could never comprehend getting that many people to drive down the street. It was beautiful.”

Family members from Folsom, El Dorado, Lancaster and Sacramento all turned out for the joyous occasion. The surprise was organized two of Harmon’s daughters, Linda Kurtzman and Patti Norton.

“I really believe he was getting depressed and today to see the whole family. … He’s speechless to tell you the truth,” Kurtzman said.

Norton was just as described saying she was “flabbergasted” by the support that showed up to wish Harmon a happy birthday.

The drive-by was the first time Harmon had seen the majority of his family in nine months due to the coronavirus.

After all was said and done, Harmon jokingly said, “I must be loved after all.”

9. Downtown Lemoore buzzes as first dispensary opens

LEMOORE — A first of its kind locally, Lemoore opened its first cannabis dispensary, Valley Pure, on June 12.

“We always lay the groundwork,” Valley Pure District Manager Tony Caudle said at the time. “We show everybody there’s a path. … It doesn’t take that long as long as the cities are forward thinking. Lemoore has been great. … You got other cities locally surrounding us that are still waiting and they had ordinances in years ago. Lemoore’s definitely ahead of the game.”

Valley Pure, which has three other locations in the area, sells flowers, edibles, tinctures, concentrates, vape pens, patches and more.

“We have a little bit of everything and it’s not everything that just gets you high,” Caudle said. “We have the CBD for the medical benefits. You’re going to see that a lot of people that start using these CBD and THC products get off their prescription drugs, have a better way of life, they live a little better. … The products that we sell are all geared towards helping people.”

Valley Pure, located at 308 E St., is a way to revitalize downtown Lemoore, according to City Manager Nathan Olson.

“What we’re really hoping to do is to get people in from out of the area and take the time to experience our downtown and spend time in our restaurants, our little shops, especially on the heels of COVID-19 right now,” Olson said then.

Whether you’re in favor of cannabis or not, the opening of a store in Lemoore was and continues to be a big deal.

10. ‘The Mandalorian’ actor signs autographs for fans at DJ's Collectible Shoppe

HANFORD — One of the more positive events of 2020 saw Star Wars infiltrate downtown Hanford for one afternoon on Aug. 16.

Dominic Pace, actor who played Gekko the Bounty Hunter in “The Mandalorian,” signed autographs and took photos with fans during his final stop of the Support Small Business Tour 2020 at DJ’s Collectible Shoppe.

“I think, if anything, the whole world right now needs some kind of positivity,” Pace said at the event. “The ‘Star Wars’ universe has been nothing but a positive thing for so many people. It’s represented hope in so many ways. I’ve managed to not only spread that hope, but also at the same time help brand the character and also support small business.”

Stormtroopers, Darth Maul and Boba Fett roamed around the store to customers’ delight and posed for multiple photos. Pace charged no appearance fee and donated 15% of all sales to the businesses that participated on the tour.

“It’s really unheard of to hear of any celebrities taking care of small business, so it was really nice to have him do that for us,” Jason Weihert, owner of DJ’s Collectible Shoppe, said.

The visit was topped off by 501st Legion Central California Garrison Commanding Officer Greg Gatzka presenting Pace with a Certificate of Appreciation for completing his small business tour.

This year was one for the books and one that many triumphed just by making it to the end. There were so many stories that could’ve made the list, but with only 10 spots available, some tough decisions were made. That doesn’t devalue the rest in any way, shape or form.

I would like to extend my deepest gratitude and thanks to all those I interviewed this year and allowed me to tell their story. It’s because of you I get to do what I love for a living.

Do you agree with my list? Totally disagree? What were some of your top stories of the year?

I won’t be forgetting 2020 anytime soon, but I definitely won’t dwell on it much longer. Here’s to 2021.

Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or ngarcia@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.

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