Life is never boring in the Commonwealth – that much is certain. And 2015 certainly brought its share of newsworthy stories. While many amazing things happened, such as the fact that we added 11 new sites to the Historic Landmark registry and the 52-mile Capital Trail opened between Williamsburg and Richmond, we also had a few more stories that were surprising, noteworthy or just downright weird. Here are a few of Virginia’s 2015 highlights.
1. The end of a (football) era.
On Sunday, November 1, 2015, Frank Beamer announced his retirement as head coach of the Virginia Tech football program. Beamer, undoubtedly one of the most beloved college coaches of all times, leaves behind a legacy as the winningest active coach in FBS, with a record of 234-120-2 over 29 seasons. Under his guidance, the Hokies took four ACC titles, three Big East championships and made six BCS bowl game appearances.
2. But the beginning of a baseball legacy.
The University of Virginia Cavaliers mens’ baseball team clinched the NCAA National Championship title in June 2015 after defeating Vanderbilt 4-2 in the third game of the College World Series. The title was the first for the Cavaliers after losing to Vanderbilt in the same round of play last year.
3. The Coywolf makes headlines in Virginia.
The “coywolf,” a hybrid of western coyotes and eastern timber wolves, have been migrating and breeding for more than 100 years, but only in the last decade or so have they been seen with frequency in the Old Dominion. Commonly known as the eastern coyote, these feral canines are genetically around 66 percent coyote, 24 percent wolf and approximately 10 percent domestic dog.
Sighted as early as 2004, studies began at Virginia Tech in 2011. By 2014, their presence was becoming more pronounced as flocks of hens, sheep and other small domestic farm animals began to dwindle. Just this month,
in Charlottesville provided a feature story on the coywolves of Virginia, focusing on their growing populations in Albemarle County.
4. Then there was that day it rained baby sharks in Virginia Beach…
On June 26, 2015, a Virginia Beach woman got a bit of a shock when a baby shark fell from the sky, landing in her back yard at the north end of the Virginia Beach oceanfront. Apparently, a large bird dropped the 13-inch dogfish (sand) shark as it flew over the woman’s house. The woman kept the shark, which was already dead, on ice in her freezer for several weeks to show to curious friends and family, but admitted that she wasn’t sure if the little fellow would end up in the bin or buried in the backyard.
5. Sweet Briar alum prove that they are NOT to be messed with.
On May 16th, graduates walked across the Sweet Briar College stage for the 106th, and possibly the last, commencement of the 114-year old college. Earlier in 2015, the college board announced that the school would be closing following the 2015 commencement due to a lack of enrollment and funding. This sparked an immediate response from Sweet Briar alumnae and supporters, who launched the grass roots campaign, “Save Sweet Briar.” On June 22, 2015, the Supreme Court of Virginia announced that the school could stay open based on a settlement requiring that alumnae pay a total $18.5 million dollars over the next five years and 13 college board members step down. When the historic school re-opened its doors and welcomed students in August of this year, the social media war cry of #SaveSweetBriar soon became #SweetBriarSaved.
6. Darth Vader tries to save the universe – one highway at a time.
More than one driver had to do a double take when passing the Tom’s Creek Bridge off of U.S. Route 460 in Blacksburg this year when they saw a sign claiming that the highway had been adopted by none other than Darth Vader himself. Turns out, Montgomery County school bus driver Henry Wackley, is the man behind the mask. He wanted to bring attention to clean-up efforts in the area, so not only did he get legal VDOT permission to adopt the highway in Vader’s name, he has cleaned the roadsides multiple times in a Darth Vader costume. Looks like even bad guys can do good.
7. Guilty plea for the “Instagram” bank robber.
Dominyk Antonio Alfonseca proved that it pays to have manners when he walked in to a bank in May 2015, handed the teller a politely written robbery note (complete with a “winking” smiley face) and walked out with $150,000. His only flaw? He immediately posted 2 videos of the “transaction” to Instagram, as well as a photo of his note. His argument to the police, who picked him up shortly after he posted the videos, was that he was polite, he used his manners to ask for the money and the teller could have said no. Just before giving a “shout out” to Michelle Obama, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga, Alfonseca told to a local news station, “I videotaped it. If it was a robbery, I don’t think I would videotape it, post the picture of the letter and do that all to come to jail.” Needless to say, his argument, logical though it was, did not hold up in court and he finally entered a guilty plea earlier this month with sentencing in March.
8. Babies don’t wait for anyone – even on the beltway.
When a Fairfax woman went in to labor in January of this past year, she thought she could make it to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church with time to spare. She thought wrong. When it became clear that the baby was going to arrive before she did, she called Fairfax County Fire medics who met her on the outer loop of the I-495 Beltway. She delivered a healthy baby girl at approximately 3am, proving that when a baby is ready to make an entrance, there’s not much you can do to stop it.
9. The DMV finally gave us something to smile about.
Earlier this month, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles announced on their website that customers would, once again, have the option of smiling in their driver’s license and government identification card photos. Since 2009, the DMV has adhered to a “neutral expression” policy as a means of assisting with image verification procedures. But apparently, new technology at the DMV works even on smiling faces, which means that for the first time in 6 years, your driver’s license doesn’t have to look like a mug shot. If you want a new picture now, head to the DMV with your current license or photo ID card, complete an application and pay $20 for a new license or $10 for a new ID card.
10. The “Grateful Doe” mystery is solved after more than 20 years.
Jason Callahan of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was only 19 in 1995 when he died in a car accident while traveling through Southern Virginia. The accident left Callahan with injuries that made him unrecognizable, and without any government identification, the only clues he left behind were two Grateful Dead concert tickets in his pocket. Dubbed “Grateful Doe,” Callahan’s case caught the attention of amateur internet detectives over the years, leading to pages devoted to uncovering his identity and computer-generated images of his face. It wasn’t until January 2015, after his family saw some of these images, that his mother filed the first missing person’s report since Callahan had left home in June 1995. Apparently, he had left to follow the Grateful Dead and his family simply assumed he was living happily away all of these years. In December, authorities confirmed his identification through DNA testing, ending a two-decade mystery.
11. Big Stone Gap finally hits the big screen.
Adriana Trigiani put her hometown of Big Stone Gap on the map years ago with a bestselling book series about life in this small coal mining community in Wise County. Finally, in 2015, those stories came to life on the big screen, highlighted by Hollywood stars like Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson and Whoopi Goldberg. “Big Stone Gap,” which hit theaters on October 9, 2015, was shot primarily on location in town and today, visitors can take self-guided tours of sets and scenes, including the former gas station which still contains a soda fountain, tables and nostalgic wall posters used during filming.
12. A Virginia Beach traffic jam turns into a party.
When a traffic jam on I-264 turned to gridlock in May of this year, people decided to make the most of it. An ice cream truck started passing out ice cream, drivers got out of their cars and tossed a football and a local Norfolk band did what any band would do. They got out of their van and played a concert. The Hot Brass Gumbo Band kept the gridlock from getting too gritty with a 40-minute concert while emergency crews responded to the scene of an accident that had put traffic at a standstill.
Do you have a favorite news story from 2015? We would love to hear about it in the comments below!