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Our Most Memorable Stories of 2015

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WFPL News
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As 2015 comes to a close, we're taking a look back at some of our most memorable stories. 

Some are serious — the election, homelessness, environmental issues. Others are simply interesting — Kentucky Derby jockeys, the state fair. And then there's the Louisville cat that ran for president.

Here are the stories:

Health reporter Ja’Nel Johnson spent much of the year exploring health disparities among African-Americans in Kentucky. Her four-part series, Sick & Tired, was part of the Next Louisville: Community Health project, a partnership between WFPL News, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and the Community Foundation of Louisville. In the third part of the series, she reported on how violence affects the psychological health of victims, their families, and their communities.

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Austin, Indiana, got national attention this year after an HIV outbreak prompted Gov. Mike Pence to declare a public health emergency. The tiny town about 30 miles north of Louisville implemented a needle exchange program to try to curb new infections among IV drug users. Ja’Nel visited Austin in April and came back with this report.

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The weather so far this winter has been marked by one rainy day after another. But last spring, the city was dealing with snow. Lots of snow. At least a foot of snow was on the ground in early March, and many businesses were closed — but not the library. WFPL’s urban affairs reporter Jacob Ryan spent a morning at the Shawnee Library on West Broadway. He found residents there immersed in schoolwork, job hunting and book browsing, taking quiet refuge from the snow-covered streets.

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Erica Peterson, WFPL’s environment reporter, spent much of 2015 poring over two decades' worth of data from the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, the state agency responsible for enforcing environmental laws. She found a stark decline in enforcement actions under the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, and his predecessor Ernie Fletcher. In this report, she explores enforcement failures and their environmental consequences, and the budgetary reasons behind the problem.

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In part two of the series, Peterson looked at the effect lax enforcement of environmental laws has had on Kentucky’s water quality.

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Peterson also spent a week in Germany this year, where, for the last two decades, they’ve been working to change the way their country is powered. The result was her five-part series, From Bundestag to Bluegrass. In this first installment, she visits the city of Gelsenkirchen to see how the Energiewende, or energy transition, is working.

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Housing and homelessness made a lot of headlines in Louisville this year, but in this piece, we’ll meet someone living in limbo between housed and homeless. 73-year-old Smoketown resident Mary Campbell is in danger of losing her home because she can’t afford to bring it into compliance with the city’s maintenance code — or pay the fines she owes for being out of compliance for so long.

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Louisville’s code enforcement officers aren’t just checking to make sure occupied homes are up to code — vacant homes and properties are also under their jurisdiction. More than 8,000 homes sit empty throughout the city. Jacob Ryan spoke to people who live next door to them, to find out how empty houses affect their neighbors.

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This year saw Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s pledge to end homelessness among veterans by the end of the year. When he checked on the goal’s progress, Jacob found one big stumbling block: landlords who weren’t willing to rent to them.

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Along with housing insecurity, many veterans struggle with mental illness. And sometimes, it takes more than traditional talk therapy to help. This year, arts and culture correspondent Tara Anderson met Mike Gibson, a U.S. Army veteran, who teaches art classes in the psychiatric unit of Louisville’s VA hospital. He says sometimes making art gets people to open up in ways that more structured therapy can’t.

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There seems to be healing power in getting together to create, and to share what you’ve created. Tara saw it not just at the VA hospital, but at Hotel Louisville, in a poetry writing class for formerly homeless women who are in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

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Homelessness isn’t a new problem in Louisville, but one shocking death this year brought it sharply into focus. Kenneth Winfield was found dead outside the St. John’s Center for Homeless Men on a freezing February night. Jacob Ryan talked to the people who loved him about what kind of person Kenny was, and how he came to be without a place to stay.

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Nights when temperatures dip below 35 degrees are called White Flag Nights by homeless advocates. That means some Louisville homeless shelters open their doors to anyone in need — whether they have enough beds or not. Thompson Williams is a monitor at one of those shelters, Wayside Christian Mission. Former WFPL host Devin Katayama gave him a recorder to find out what it’s like in a crowded facility on a White Flag Night.

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Ideas of home and belonging played out in national news this year, as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Syria, and countries all over the world responded either by taking them in or vowing they would not. Commentator Luis De Leon, who came to Louisville from Guatemala six years ago, saw parallels between the plight of the refugees and the experiences of immigrants, like him.

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The news, by definition, is an unpredictable business, but there are some events you can count on to make headlines every year. And the biggest — at least in Louisville — is the Kentucky Derby. This year, the big story was the Triple Crown. American Pharaoh became the first horse to win it in 37 years. But we also looked at some lesser-known Derby history — specifically, the story of the black jockeys who once dominated the sport.

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While the Kentucky State Fair may not get the international attention the Derby attracts, it’s no less beloved by its fans. But last year, attendance was down. So we wanted to find out how fair organizers planned to draw in new faces while still delivering the nostalgic experience long-time fairgoers expect.

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One of the new fair features was a tent dedicated to bourbon, nestled between the ever-present beer tents. There’s no doubt: Bourbon is having a moment, and not just in its home state. And although bourbon is a gender-neutral pleasure, its top distillers are always men — until this year, when Marianne Barnes became the first woman master distiller in modern times.

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Another old boys’ club went co-ed this year, but its members didn’t say a word about it. Believe it or not, every public statue in Louisville was of a man. That changed this year. A bronze statue of Mother Catherine Spalding, co-founder of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, was placed in front of the Cathedral of the Assumption this summer, and WFPL’s Rick Howlett had this report.

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WFPL's Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting spent a lot of time this year looking into Kentucky jails and the criminal justice system. We uncovered a practice called banishment, in which a judge orders a defendant to leave the county for a certain amount of time. It’s not a legal punishment, according to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, but it’s still happening in Kentucky courts, sometimes with tragic results, as R.G. Dunlop found.

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This year saw the election of Gov. Matt Bevin, only the second Republican to hold the office in recent history. Our capital bureau chief, Ryland Barton, did this profile of Bevin back before he won the Republican primary in May.

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Bevin's election was one of the biggest stories of the year in Kentucky. We covered all angles, including the question of why some people didn't head to the polls despite the high stakes of the election. WFPL videographer J. Tyler Franklin and producer Laura Ellis came back with this video.


This year also saw same-sex marriage take front and center as a political issue. The Supreme Court effectively legalized marriage for same-sex couples in a case that included Kentuckians. WFPL's Strange Fruit show, which focuses on race and LGBT issues, watched the big day unfold in Louisville.

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Matt Jones, host of Kentucky Public Radio, was a big name in political news this year. He hosted Fancy Farm, as well as a couple of high-profile gubernatorial debates, and for a brief moment he considered running for Congress himself, though he later opted not to. WFPL’s political reporter Ashley Lopez talked to Jones about how his show became a must-stop not only for diehard UK fans — but for Kentucky politicians, too.

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One Louisville resident filed to run for president this year, gaining national attention from the Rachel Maddow show and political watchdogs alike. That candidate, Limberbutt McCubbins, has one defining characteristic that sets him apart from political rivals and firmly into the position of Washington outsider: Limberbutt McCubbins is a cat.

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