Last year will be remembered as one for the record books. We won’t soon forget the things that happened and the roller coaster ride that was 2020.
We suffered loss. The global COVID-19 pandemic claimed at least 27 lives right here at home, shuttered businesses and threw the economy into a sudden recession. The coronavirus took loved ones from many in Pierce County, took jobs and economic security from others, and left some survivors facing a long road of recovery ahead.
Then, we triumphed. The Pierce County Bears closed out a trying, disappointing year for many with a jubilant state championship victory, and claimed the school’s first-ever AAA football state trophy. (See related stories).
Here’s a look back at the Top Ten news items of 2020:
No. 1 — Historic season for Pierce County Bears
Pierce County made its first-ever state championship football game appearance against Oconee County December 30 and won 13-7 after knocking off bullish Crisp County 25-13 in the Class AAA semifinals just before Christmas. Pierce County won their third consecutive region trophy over rival Appling County to advance to the playoffs. The Bears then knocked out Burke County, Central-Macon and Carver-Atlanta on their way to the semifinal round against Crisp County and ultimately the state championship game.
Other sports programs at PCHS performed well last year, too. The 2019-20 girls’ basketball team finished first in the regular season standings and 23-6 overall and were region runner-ups. The Lady Bears varsity basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16 of the state playoffs, losing in the second round to Jefferson.
The 2019-20 boys’ basketball team finished second in the regular season standings (8-4 region record) and 22-7 overall. The boys also finished as region runners-up, but advanced to the Sweet 16 of the state playoffs, and also lost in the second round to Jefferson.
Pierce County’s Todd Carter capped his brilliant career repeating as the 132-pound weight class champion and helping the Bears to a seventh-place finish at the Class AAA Traditional tournament. The team also captured a region trophy.
The top-ranked Pierce County Lady Bears softball team turned back Appling County to claim the Region 1-AAA title in a double elimination tournament and advanced to the Elite 8 in state play before their season ended. Pierce County High School’s Lady Bears’ cross-country team also captured a Region 1-AAA title.
The school’s literary team and One Act Play won region trophies as well.
No. 2 — COVID-19 pandemic
Pierce County’s first reported cases of coronavirus came in mid-March. Businesses, restaurants, city and county offices were shuttered for weeks in keeping with state and federal guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. In April, a COVID-19 outbreak reportedly originated from a local church gathering and area health officials urged churches not to meet.
The county’s two first coronavirus fatalities were reported in April. At year end, the county’s death toll stood at 27. Not all virus victims were identified, either due to family requests or because identification could not be verified by The Times. Those who were named include:
Vielee Hester, Bill Pittman, Lynda Bates, Beverly Dixon, Faron Peacock, Beth Blythe, Shari Henderson, Donald Moore, Charles Walker, Faye Bennett, Ervin Collins, Cindy Farmer, Lawton Taylor and Eddie Teston. Former nursing home administrative assistant Joan Denissa “Necie” Davis also passed away due to the virus. Davis lived in Waycross, but grew up in Patterson.
Pierce County Schools closed in March and never resumed for the 2019-2020 school year after Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order closing all schools across the state for the remainder of the term. The school system, with the help of community partners, did maintain meal delivery for students even though schools were closed. Commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020 were delayed until July, but stadium lights were turned on for 20 minutes every Friday night in May and a slideshow for the graduates played on the scoreboard on what would have been graduation night.
The Georgia National Guard set up a drive-thru COVID-19 (coronavirus) testing site outside Emmanuel Baptist Church at the Warehouse Student Ministry Building. Later in the year, drive-thru testing sites were operated by the Pierce County Health Department.
Harborview Pierce was shuttered for months. Family members couldn’t visit and residents couldn’t leave as the facility worked to contain and reduce the spread of COVID-19. In June, they held a drive-by parade, and hundreds of well-wishers participated, waving signs, clappers and balloons, blowing bubbles and cheering as they drove slowly through the parking lot. Residents also held signs expressing their love for family members as they craned their necks for that first glimpse of their loved ones.
When virus cases spiked in the summer, area hospitals began diverting patients as beds filled up. More than half of Pierce County’s total COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases up to that point — 189 — occurred in July. At year end, the number of virus cases reported here (according to DPH) was approximately 880.
Pierce County Schools opened for the new 2020-2021 school year in August, offering both in-person and virtual instruction, but Pierce County High School was forced to close for a few days in October and move to virtual instruction due to a cluster of cases there. The school reopened November 2.
Longtime Blackshear primary care doctors and father-son duo Drs. Don and Brent Waters made local history as 2020 drew to a close when they stepped up to be the first healthcare workers in Blackshear to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Pierce County Health Department. Other than arm soreness, neither doctor reported adverse symptoms from the vaccine.
No. 3 — Historical elections
From a historically tight and contentious presidential race to a hotly contested sheriff’s election, 2020 was perhaps the busiest election year on record for Pierce County. Voters here cast ballots for several local, area, state and national offices in an election process that lasted all year long due to delays from the pandemic.
Incumbent Sheriff Ramsey Bennett narrowly won a third term in office after facing primary opposition from Major Robby Boatright of the Blackshear Police Department, retired DNR Ranger Gary Simmons and retired GSP trooper Greg Stone. The sheriff’s race generated the most interest during the campaign season, as it marked the first time in recent history there has been a four-way race for sheriff. Bennett and Boatright advanced to a run-off election in August which Bennett won by 141 votes.
The May 19 primary election was postponed until June due to the pandemic. The June 9 primary election featured the presidential preference primary originally set for March 24 and the state and local primary contests initially scheduled for May 19.
More than 3,600, 29.37 percent of Pierce County’s total registered voters, cast an early ballot in the general primary election in June. In an historical twist of events, most of those votes — 2,244 to be exact — were cast via mail in ballot due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
Pierce County remained deep ruby red Republican in the November general election from the local races to the race for the White House. Incumbent Republican President Donald Trump trounced Democratic former vice president Joe Biden 7,899 to 1,099 among Pierce County voters. Biden was declared the ultimate winner of the presidency, however, after a long, hard-fought counting process which marked another historical moment for Pierce County. The Board of Elections hand counted over 9,000 ballots after the State of Georgia issued a statewide recount. A recount of this magnitude had never been conducted before in Georgia and followed record turnout in the general election. The hand recount here was completed by five two-person teams. The recount was completed by the end of the day, November 13, and resulted in no changes to the final tallies reported on election night.
Blackshear Councilman Shawn Godwin (District 5) was recalled from office in a special recall election held December 1, marking the first time in known election history that a recall has been held here. Fifty-three residents, representing 15.92 percent of District Five’s registered voters, cast a ballot in the recall election with 39 in favor of recalling Godwin and 14 opposed to the recall. The election to recall Councilman Godwin followed certification of a petition calling for his removal from office in October. Sharon Komanecky and a group of petitioners organized their effort “on the grounds that he has participated in unlawful attempts to conduct city council meetings in violation of the Georgia Open Records Act; voted for and supported adding agenda items of significant public interest without providing notice to the public; denied citizens access to social media that was critical of his actions; made knowingly false and/or derogatory comments about other public officials; failed to perform duties when appointed to certain committee(s); conducted himself in a manner that gives reasonable basis for the impression that a person can improperly influence him or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of official acts.” Komanecky was the sole qualifier for the open seat and succeeded Godwin in December.
No. 4 — New voting machines and procedures
Pierce County received Georgia’s new voting machines in February and implemented them just ahead of the presidential primary election. The new ballot devices include a touch screen voting screen similar to the old machines, but voters now print a paper copy of their ballot and deposit it in a ballot counter before exiting the poll station.
Every active registered voter in Georgia received an absentee ballot request form in the mail for the general primary and nonpartisan election. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger mailed out the ballots in an effort to ensure election integrity was maintained while still abiding by health and safety regulations currently in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Pierce County Board of Elections received a record number of absentee ballot requests – 3,000 in two months time. Elections Superintendent Leah Ritch estimated the most absentee ballot requests her office had processed in any election prior to 2020 was 450.
New in-person voting processes were also implemented this year due to social distancing guidelines in place during the pandemic. Only 10 people were allowed in the voting room at once, including two poll workers. Voters were required to stand six feet apart and wear latex gloves provided by the election’s office when casting their ballots. Voters were encouraged to wear face masks.
No. 5 — City council conflicts
Less than 10 minutes after the January meeting began and less than two minutes after being sworn in, newly elected Blackshear Councilwoman Linda Gail Dennison (Dist. 6) brought the council meeting to a halt by proposing a list of seven new agenda items. The chaos of that meeting set the tone for most of the city council meetings in 2020. Council members rarely voted unanimously, delivering 4-2 decisions on multiple issues and arguing heatedly about the appointment of a city clerk, budget matters, the position of special projects manager (currently held by Police Chief Chris Wright) and the ethics board appointment of Mary Lott Walker.
Cries of outrage and calls for at least one council member to step down amidst cheers and applause, marked what some longtime Blackshear residents describe as the most tumultuous city council meeting they had ever attended in February. Residents showed up primarily to hold the council accountable for their decisions by their presence, but when the council voted down Jenny Grant’s appointment as city clerk by a 3-2 vote, they took more aggressive action, pressing those who voted no to explain why.
Blackshear residents opposed to the actions of city council members Timmy Sapp (District 3), Shawn Godwin (District 5) and Dennison took another step toward their removal from office by circulating a petition in town calling for their resignation, removal from office or a recall election. A successful recall election was held in District Five which resulted in Godwin’s removal from office. (See related story under ‘Historical Elections’ above).
No. 6 — New high school opens
“It is a special day, a big moment and a great day to be a Pierce County Bear!” Former school superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith opened with those remarks at the historic grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Pierce County High School in January. U.S. Congressman Buddy Carter, Governor Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods were joined by State Senator Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla), State Representative Steven Meeks (R-Screven) and State Board of Education Member Mike Long in officially opening the new school. The $29.5 million school features 64 classrooms and 185,000 square feet.
No. 7 – Debate over fate of old PCHS continues
Tear it down or save it? A recommendation to demolish the old Pierce County High School was met with caution as at least two Board of Education members advocated a go slow approach for determining what to do with the 40 year old building early in the year. The board continued to table voting on the matter throughout the year even as community interest in the topic grew.
Community members presented a variety of suggestions for the building and expressed mixed opinions on whether it should be demolished or repurposed in some way.
Complete demolition of the building would range between $530,000 and $708,000. The second option discussed calls for saving the gym and the concession stand and front classroom there and the administration area adjacent to the gym, but comes with a price tag of $3,361,689 – more than $2 million above funds previously allocated for the project. The remainder of the building would be demolished. A total of $1.1 million for demolition of the old PCHS was included in the construction budget for the new high school. There is no local or state funding set aside to cover the costs of renovations to save all or part of the old high school.
BOE Maintenance Supervisor Harbin Farr has recommended the building be torn down, but some county residents have expressed to board members their desire to see part or all of the building saved.
By October, the BOE had spent almost $90,000 on the now closed Pierce County High School. Figures showed the old school had been costing the system about $10,000 per month to maintain since it was closed, and students moved in to the new Pierce County High School next door in January.
As we enter into 2021, the building still stands and no final decision has been made as to its future use or demolition.
No. 8 — Leadership changes
Blackshear – Councilman Shawn Godwin (District 5) took office for his first full term after filling the unexpired term of Jerry Dixon who died in office. Godwin was recalled later in the year. Councilwoman Linda Gail Dennison (Dist. 6) took office replacing David Smith who chose not to seek another term. Councilman Charles Broady (Dist. 4) was appointed to serve as mayor pro tem, replacing Keith Brooks. Jenny Grant was appointed Blackshear’s new city clerk in February, but her appointment nearly didn’t happen. Blackshear council members initially voted the appointment down 3-2, then reversed course and unanimously approved her appointment after convening in a closed session to discuss the matter.
School System – Pierce County Middle School Principal Perry Tison retired after almost a decade as principal and with more than 30 years in education. PCMS Assistant Principal Amanda Gay replaced Tison. Pierce County School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith retired in June and Pierce County High School Principal Dara Bennett was hired as superintendent. Kelly Murray was hired as the new principal at Pierce County High School. Lanna Denison was named as interim principal at Blackshear Elementary School while Principal Dee Treadwell was on bereavement leave, then hired to take the post permanently following Treadwell’s retirement.
School board chairperson Linda Zechmann resigned her office in August prior to moving to South Carolina. Duward Boatright was named as chairman of the school board by his fellow board members at a called meeting following Zechmann’s resignation. Wendy Puryear was sworn in as Pierce County’s new district four school board member in September to fill the unexpired term of former fourth district member Boatright through the end of 2022. Longtime Sound of Silver band director Bob Edward retired and Robert McCoy was hired to lead the award winning high school band. Assistant Superintendent for Finance LeVance Gay retired and Midway Elementary School Principal Dr. Walker Todd was hired for the job. MES Assistant Principal Brandi Todd replaced Dr. Todd.
Community — The Rev. Eric Rentz is the new pastor of Blackshear First Baptist Church. He was confirmed as pastor by a congregational vote and preached his first sermon as pastor July 5. Rentz succeeded longtime Pastor Bill Young who retired in September 2019. The Rev. Rentz, 42, comes to Blackshear after serving for the past year with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Prior to that, he had served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ludowici for 14 years.
No. 9 — Pierce County Industrial Developments
There may have been an ongoing global pandemic and economic slowdown, but industrial growth still happened here last year.
Pierce County joined the Southeast Georgia Regional Development Authority (SEGRDA) in 2019, and it paid off in a big way a year later when the joint development authority received a $500,000 OneGeorgia Authority Grant which will be used to construct a rail spur in the Pierce County U.S. Highway 84 Industrial Park. A rail spur is highly marketable to future industries which could translate to job growth, economic expansion and increased tax revenue.
Pierce County Industrial Development Authority also brokered a deal with Reliable Rolloff Solutions, Inc. of Jesup that was projected to bring a $500,000 capital investment and at least five new jobs to the community by the end of the year. The IDA deeded approximately 27 acres off Rawhide Road in the U.S. Hwy. 84 Industrial Park for the company to build a construction and demolition (C&D) waste transfer station.
Roses Express opened in the former Fred’s building on U.S. Hwy. 84. The new store is a retail business in the dollar store format, very similar to what Fred’s was.
No. 10 — Crime in Pierce
• A family matter turned deadly in October when 59-year-old Blackshear resident George Baker was shot and killed near his home on Eva Street. Baker’s step-son, 26-year-old Denerio Dejaun Hill, was arrested and charged with felony and malice murder. • Blackshear woman, 31-year-old Kay Dewberry died of wounds she suffered in a shooting in late July. Matthew Johnsen, 32, has been charged with Dewberry’s murder. The sheriff characterized the shooting as “domestic” in nature, but declined additional comment.
• Seven people were arrested in connection with a mail theft ring in Pierce and Ware Counties. The alleged thieves reportedly used the mail to cash checks, created debit and credit card accounts and converted them to cash or used them for financial gain.
• A year-long investigation into the smuggling of contraband into the Pierce County Jail led to 10 arrests, including two former jailers. According to Sheriff Ramsey Bennett, the investigation began in May 2019 after Carlton Roberts, a jailer with the sheriff’s office, was arrested for allegedly smuggling contraband into the jail.
• Pierce County Sheriff’s Office confiscated about $30,000 worth of heroin and arrested 35-year-old Eric Lashawn Hayes on trafficking charges. During the course of the investigation, Hayes was found to be in possession of 102 grams of heroin.
• Davey Green, 35-year-old Waycross resident, was arrested and charged with heroin possession, drug trafficking and cruelty to children during a Blackshear PD traffic stop. Crystal Champagne, a 33-year-old Blackshear resident, was charged with failure to maintain lane, possession of Schedule IV drug, cruelty to children (second degree), drugs not in original container, trafficking heroin and possession of heroin in the same stop.
• Former Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Wright was arrested on sexual misconduct charges in Wayne County in September. According to a press release from the Kingsland office of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), Wright is charged with one count of aggravated sodomy, sexual assault against a person in custody and violation of oath of office.
• A Pierce County Recreation Department employee was the victim of an early morning, attempted armed robbery in September. Blackshear Police Department arrested 33-year-old Blackshear resident, Todrick Coley after reportedly identifying him from surveillance video at the Rec. Dept. Coley was charged with aggravated assault and armed robbery.
• Four people were arrested in connection with an armed robbery and kidnapping that took place in mid-September on Clark Road.
• Alvaro Hernandez, 36, of Bristol, was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison for attempting to lure a young teen for sexual activity. Hernandez was sentenced to 76 months in federal prison by U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood after he pled guilty to attempted coercion and enticement.
• Seven people were arrested in October in connection with heroin trafficking.
• A Patterson man and McDonough woman face cruelty to children charges in connection with the injury of two-year-old Selina Wolfe. The child’s mother, 20-year-old Mattie Pierce of McDonough, was charged with cruelty to children, a felony. Twenty-six-year-old Allen Michael Taylor of Patterson, reportedly Pierce’s boyfriend, was charged with cruelty to children, aggravated assault and aggravated battery.
• Ten people were arrested for methamphetamine possession and trafficking and marijuana possession in two separate illegal drug investigations in early November.