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Let's Review

Memphis news in 2003.

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What sort of year was 2003 in Memphis? A memorable one. They all are, of course.

There were some notable passings. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips died. And not long after that, so did Johnny Cash, who recorded at Sun early in his career.

Kemmons Wilson died at the age of 90. The hard-working, down-to-earth founder of Holiday Inns titled his autobiography Half Luck and Half Brains.

News media from around the world took note of those three passings, but it was the deaths of ordinary people that had more disturbing implications for Memphis.

On a hot day in June, 2-year-old Amber Cox-Cody was forgotten and left in a car seat in a day-care van for eight hours. It was the fourth such death in Memphis in recent years, and it spawned a newspaper-led campaign of public outrage and concern. Three day-care workers were charged with first-degree murder in the Amber case.

Another death two weeks later highlighted a different kind of system failure. On July 9th, 68-year-old Jim Wagner collapsed while playing pool at an establishment called the Billiard Club. It took 30 minutes to get an ambulance to him, although the club is near a major intersection on the border of Bartlett and Memphis.

Club patrons made at least seven emergency calls, mostly to the Memphis Fire Department. While Wagner fought for his life and patrons administered CPR, emergency personnel struggled to find the location of the club and debated whether it was the responsibility of Memphis, Bartlett, or Shelby County. "This dude's fixin' to die!" said one caller.

A few minutes later, he did just that.

There were 140 homicides in Memphis, give or take a few for year-end adjustments. Not the most, not the least, as recent years go.

In the media-milestones department, The Commercial Appeal got a new editor, Chris Peck, who redefined news and is introducing Memphis to something called community journalism. A sample of it was on display when a pair of pandas arrived at the Memphis Zoo from China and were greeted with thousands of words of coverage.

The Tri-State Defender set a new standard for plagiarism by stealing scores of stories from other weekly newspapers around the country, changing the names and datelines, and running them as their own front-page copy. The newspaper shrugged it off as the unscrupulous work of a pair of mysterious free-lance writers who have not been heard from since.

The FedExForum got built, or most of the way anyway, despite the nagging protests of Shelby County commissioner John Willingham.

The building's future tenant, the Memphis Grizzlies, got better, winning 14 games by the middle of December.

University of Alabama football booster Logan Young got indicted by the federal government, nearly three years after he was unofficially indicted in the daily paper. His trial is likely to start next June.

Shelby County medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith got a dose of skepticism from Shelby County government and federal investigators looking into a mysterious case in which Smith was tied with barbed wire and had a bomb strapped to his chest. No attacker has been found yet, and a grand-jury investigation is reviewing the case.

The Memphis Police Department got embarrassed by the news that cash and drugs worth millions of dollars in its property and evidence room were being systematically looted by a gang of thieves working as employees and supervisors. So far, five of them have been indicted.

Bill Clinton came to the National Civil Rights Museum to get honored and, of course, paid.

Carol Johnson, formerly of Minneapolis, got the dubious honor of leading the Memphis City Schools system as its superintendent.

The far-eastern Shelby County city of Arlington got the okay to build a new high school after years of haggling over the impact of suburban sprawl. Shelby County taxpayers got a property-tax increase and the promise of another one next year.

The Mall of Memphis closed. FedEx trimmed 3,500 employees from its express division via a buyout offer. Willie Herenton got reelected for the third time and called for abolishing the boards of the school system and MLGW. The lottery scholarship program got down to details. Horseshoe Casino got sold for $1.45 billion. And a wind storm in July knocked out power to much of the city for as much as two weeks and is still having ramifactions on MLGW.

Like I said, a memorable year.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

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