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Here are our favorite KUT stories of 2021

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KUT

2021: Year 2 of the COVID-19 pandemic. The year Texas’ electric grid nearly collapsed. The year we went to concerts again. The year we got vaccinated, hugged family members, saw co-workers.

The year Austin became even more unaffordable. The year of languishing. The year we quit our jobs and got new ones. The year of postponed weddings and memorials. The year we flew for the first time in a long time. The year of delta (and now omicron). The year we maybe don’t really want to remember? A year we probably should.

2021 was a lot of things. Here are KUT reporters’ favorite stories to come out of it.

Who is buried in this cemetery on 51st Street in Austin?

An iron gate that says "ASH CEMETERY" on it.
Julia Reihs/KUT
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The front gate of the Austin State Hospital Cemetery on 51st St. in Austin.

This story is part of our ATXplained series, where we answer questions from the audience about Austin’s people, places and culture. This particular story was first done at our ATXplained live show in 2020, but didn’t make it to the radio and the web until earlier this year.

This was my favorite story because it was something that I have wondered, too, for a long time. When I first moved to Austin, I lived not too far from the cemetery and was always curious about what the story was about this cemetery that appeared to be pretty empty. Reporting this story really made me think about how we treat the dead, especially those who are “unwanted.”

— Matt Largey, projects editor

An invasive bug could wipe out Texas cactuses. The story of how it got here spans centuries and continents.

A field of prickly pear cactuses.
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
Nothing says Texas like the prickly pear cactus. But the cactus moth could wipe them out.

It's a tale of colonialism, espionage and great art. A story of unintended consequences that shows how profoundly we shape the world around us.

Mose Buchele, energy and environment reporter

Lessons from lockdown

KUT’s Multimedia Team shared stories of learning and growth from 12 Austinites who arose from the struggles, discoveries and transitions of life during 2020. Gabriel Pérez, Julia Reihs and Michael Minasi cast a wide net for stories from across the city. The responses ranged from combating boredom by learning a new skill while staying at home, to coping with new motherhood during a global health crisis.

— Gabriel C. Pérez, visual storytelling editor

The winter storm decimated local farms. Here's how some farmers are trying to get by.

Shawn Fagan walks with his dog, Jasper, and sheep, Anna, on his farm on March 10.  Many of the farm's crops were irreparably damaged during Winter Storm Uri.
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
Shawn Fagan walks with his dog, Jasper, and sheep, Anna, on his farm on March 10. Many of the farm's crops were irreparably damaged during the February freeze.

After the winter storm, I checked in with some local farmers to see how they held up in the aftermath. They all had it rough, and not just for the reasons you'd expect.

They told me surviving felt like earning a merit badge, and that farming requires some weird combination of time, stubbornness and resilience.

I learned a lot from the folks I spoke to, and doubled down on my appreciation for the work our local farmers do to keep us fed.

— Riane Roldan, Hays County reporter

What's the story behind Herman the singing plumber?

Herman Bennett_GP2021.jpeg
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
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Herman Bennett, a singer and plumber, sits on the porch of his Clarksvillle home.

KUT’s ATXplained series does a great job of connecting people with this giant, crazy, ever-changing city we live in. But I think some of the best stories from it are when we learn about the lives of the people around us.

This is one of the most unexpected love stories I’ve ever read/heard/watched. (But no, I didn't produce it.) It was just supposed to be about the deal with this singing plumber, and yet it’s so much more. Bring a tissue and set your damn cold heart aside for a minute and fall in love.

— Ben Philpott, managing editor

Hey, Austin: Beware the 25th of March, a surprisingly reliable day for hail storms

Coincidence? Yes, but an interesting one: Austin has been hit with hail storms on March 25 four times from 1993-2021. Of course it’s too soon to know what’s in store for us on the 25th of March 2022, but it’s never too soon to prepare.

— Trey Shaar, All Things Considered producer, reporter and host

An army of people is helping folks in the Austin area find COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Laura Catoe is one of dozens of volunteers helping people sign up for vaccine appointments in the Austin area.
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
Laura Catoe is one of dozens of volunteers helping people sign up for vaccine appointments in the Austin area.

When the COVID-19 vaccine was finally being administered to the general public, it was a hopeful time. There was anticipation that the worst of the pandemic could soon be behind us. But getting the actual vaccine, early on, was daunting for many people. Some folks were signing up to massive hub providers, like the local health department; others were trying their luck with pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.

The process was confusing and time-consuming. For busy people or folks who weren't tech-savvy, these systems became a barrier to getting the vaccine. So, a group of volunteers became experts on how to get a vaccine appointment and started helping others. At one point, there were a couple of groups doing this — all free of charge. It was a kindness that was helping us all in the end.

— Ashley Lopez, health care and politics reporter

A beloved post office in Hyde Park is closing. The Austin neighborhood wants to know why.

The North Austin U.S. Post Office in Hyde Park
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
The post office at Speedway and 44th in Hyde Park is closing next month.

I first heard the rumor on Nextdoor: The post office that’s been at the corner of 43rd and Speedway in Hyde Park for decades was closing. As someone who rarely frequents post offices, I didn’t think much of it at first. But the more posts I saw about it, the more I was intrigued. Why do people care so much about their local post office, I wondered, and why was this one closing?

Dueling theories circulated online, some saying the landlord didn’t want to renew the lease, others speculating this was part of the U.S. Postal Service’s efforts to consolidate. I decided to get to the bottom of it and soon found myself in a rabbit hole of neighborhood gossip, post office closure laws and the emotions that come with learning something that’s always been there will suddenly go away.

— Marisa Charpentier, digital producer

Live music shows are coming back to Austin — but venues are still waiting for federal relief

AUSTIN, TX. May 27, 2021. The Tender Things open for Heartless Bastards during the reopening of Mohawk. Michael Minasi/KUTX
Michael Minasi
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KUT
AUSTIN, TX. May 27, 2021. The Tender Things open for Heartless Bastards during the reopening of Mohawk. Michael Minasi/KUTX

The headline on this story doesn’t really scream “feel-good story,” but it was — kind of. For me, at least. For a couple of glorious fortnights in late spring, many of us were convinced COVID was over, and that life could, mercifully, return to normal after we all got jabs of the vaccine.

That meant music returning.

I play music on the side, and a lot of my best friends play professionally, so this story meant a lot to me. The last show I had played before the pandemic was at Mohawk. Through my reporting over the pandemic, I’d gotten to know Jeanette, who ran the bar then, and some other folks in the industry who had been struggling.

One of my good pals was playing bass with the Heartless Bastards at this show, and there he was just doing a normal sound check like the pandemic hadn’t even happened. There I was, getting sound and grinning like a friggin’ goon (which is kind of unprofessional, but I am, to date, a human being). I couldn’t help it. The sense of relief and elation and pandemic-isolation-fueled awkwardness was oppressively palpable. The normalcy, after the churn and flux of a pandemic, just felt foreign to everyone. Conceptually, we could grasp it, sure, but functioning within it was another thing. I liken it to a dog wearing socks.

After I’d gathered all the tape I needed, KUT’s Michael Minasi and I had a Lone Star, watched the show for a bit and kept commenting on how weird it felt, the normalcy. Obviously, it was too good to last. Delta and, now, omicron changed that. But for that shining moment, everything was seemingly going to be all right, and it felt good.

— Andrew Weber, general assignment reporter

First Black director of UT’s Longhorn Band feels pride and pressure as he takes over the program

CroomesLHBHookEmHorns
Michael Minasi
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KUT
Cliff Croomes graduated from the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin in 2001. He comes back to UT-Austin from Louisiana State University where he was assistant director of bands. Before that, Croomes was director of bands at Georgetown High School in Georgetown, TX.

UT’s football program did not have a great year under its new head coach, but the leader of the “Showband of the Southwest” had high hopes and expectations as he started in his new position.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Cliff Croomes, as he marched snare drum about 20 years ago. The new Longhorn band director came back to the 40 Acres with the COVID-19 pandemic still under way and at a time of change and controversy for the program. Croomes talked with KUT over the summer about the pride and the pressure he felt taking over as the band’s first Black director.

— Jennifer Stayton, Morning Edition host

The battle for 3000 Funston Street

Looking through a chainlink fence at an empty lot at 3000 Funston St. in Austin
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
The city's plans to build a single affordable home at 3000 Funston St. in West Austin have been derailed by a lawsuit.

Someone tipped me off to this lawsuit in the spring. I called a source and told him, “Hey, I want to do a story on why it’s so hard to build affordable housing in West Austin.” I had data and it was bleak. He said, “Well, there’s a story about one house that may interest you.”

This is a story about how difficult it can be to build an income-restricted home in one of Austin’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The details of what happened once workers turned dirt highlight some of the mechanisms that keep parts of Austin blocked off to low-income people: restrictive covenants, lawsuits and neighborhood opposition.

— Audrey McGlinchy, City Hall, housing and affordability reporter 

Here's every property that would lose land to TxDOT's I-35 expansion in Central Austin

Aerial view of I-35 looking south
Nathan Bernier
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KUT
Almost 200 properties along I-35 between U.S. 290 East and Ben White Boulevard would cede some land to the right-of-way under TxDOT's proposed highway expansion.

TxDOT’s maps of the proposed I-35 expansion options were difficult to compare, so I thought I’d manually go through each to put images of each tract on a map so people could do a side-by-side comparison for themselves.

This was far more time-consuming than I had imagined, but it helped me understand the project in a lot more detail. The whole time I was meticulously going through these PDF files — taking screenshots, rotating the images, labeling them, adding them to a map — I wondered if anyone would even care! But it seemed to generate some interest, so I felt the multiday effort was worth it. Plus, I finished a couple trashy true crime audio books while doing this, and that helped the hours go by.

— Nathan Bernier, transportation reporter

Inaugural fair and rodeo highlights the rural heart of urbanizing Williamson County

A Ferris wheel
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
The first official Williamson County Fair and Rodeo included a Ferris wheel and other carnival rides.

I grew up in an area experiencing urbanization very similar to what Williamson County is going through — rural parts growing and changing as more people come to town. Normally, I’m covering the people coming to town and what that means and how things will look after they arrive. But attending the first fair and rodeo event hosted by the county as a whole, I spoke to many longtime residents.

I saw them take in the rodeo, appreciating their hometown’s rural culture, alive and well. And through that, I got to once again experience those rural parts I grew up with and to see their preservation. It was very special and personal to me.

— Allyson Ortegon, Williamson County reporter

LBJ marching band finds its beat after LASA moves to new campus

A band member in the stands of a football stadium
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
Senior Pamela of the LBJ Early College High School band on Oct. 22, 2021 at the high school's homecoming football game at Nelson Field in Austin, TX.

During the fall semester, I spent a lot of time at LBJ High School, an Austin ISD school in East Austin. It’s been a big transition year, for many reasons, and the more time I spent there, the more I realized the marching band was a great example of how these changes were playing out. The band started the school year with only five members, when typically a school that size would have between 80 and 90.

I spent weeks observing the students and band director as they recruited students and taught kids new instruments, all while preparing for and performing at football games every Friday. The students I spoke with were so passionate about their band and helping to grow it. In the month I spent shadowing them, I saw them improve so much and gain more confidence as performers. It was an absolute pleasure to tell their story, and I am so thankful the kids and their teacher allowed me to do so.

— Claire McInerny, education reporter

'This is their property': Austin says community will drive preservation of Montopolis Negro School

People outside the old Montopolis Negro School
Patricia Lim
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KUT
The city held an open house at the Montopolis Negro School on Saturday for members of the community to take a look at the old school building and try to envision what it could become.

A segregation-era schoolhouse in the Montopolis community, which had been locked up for years, was going to be opened to the public one Saturday morning. It was supposed to give the community an opportunity to imagine what they wanted to do with the historic space going forward.

I was curious what the inside of the building looked like but worried the open house would be attended by a handful of reporters and a representative from the city. I was wrong.

People in their 70s who attended the all-Black school when they were children were entering the small three-room structure after more than 40 years. In between reconnecting with old classmates and chatting with local residents they shared their stories with reporters like me.

They told me about their memories at the school, what busing was like during desegregation, and how their families were treated. They wanted people to understand their experiences, but hoped that children, including their own grandchildren, would never experience the same.

This was one of those days that made me happy to be a reporter. I’m rather shy, but armed with my recording equipment and a press badge, I freely approached people and asked about their connection to the school. I felt genuinely privileged to hear their stories and share a small part of them in the story.

— Sangita Menon, general assignment reporter

LBJ's football team, a constant through a turbulent fall semester, falls short of a state championship

LBJjaguars_MM_121621
Michael Minasi
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KUT
Jaguars Head Coach Jahmal Fenner speaks with students, teachers and community members gathered Thursday to send off the LBJ football team to the state championship.

A football championship in the state of Texas can be mythic. Its pursuit has been a rich source for Hollywood, writers, documentarians, and even public radio reporters.

A state title means championship rings, patches all over a letter jacket you feel like you may never take off, and “State Champs” etched for posterity on the city’s welcome sign.

Second place, though, can be tougher to process.

This was a follow-on story from a series of reports Claire McInerny did on my alma mater, LBJ High School. I am biased, but my high school has had dozens and dozens of great athletes playing for it through the years. But this season was its best in 48 seasons of football — undefeated until the state title game. And after going through what the school did this fall, the tremendous success of its team and its students may warrant its own “champs” sign anyway.

— Jimmy Maas, host and reporter