Stories we remember in 2009

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Los Alamos experienced many losses this past year

By Carol A. Clark

Many stories appearing in the Monitor this year stirred community reaction. One that drew considerable passion was the story about Principal Mike Katko’s job being questioned at Mountain Elementary School.

The story first broke in the Monitor March 25. It was written based on a number of telephone calls that morning from alarmed parents and teachers and the refusal by school officials and Katko to talk about it.

Expressions of outrage followed the story’s publication. Some members of the community charged the story was baseless and others expressed shock that their “beloved” principal could be forced out.

Katko’s resignation finally became official in June following weeks of speculation, a barrage of rumors, anonymous tips, off-the-record-meetings and “no comment, it’s a personnel issue” responses.

“I’m amazed and still thankful for the 359 people who took their time and cared enough to sign a petition supporting my management style,” Katko said in an interview at the time.

Katko went before the school board in closed session to present that petition indicating the strong support he had from Mountain parents and students.

“I can’t say what happened at that meeting but I ended up still resigning,” he said.

The facts behind Katko’s leaving may never be fully known but he did want to make one thing perfectly clear.

“While I can’t discuss the details of my resignation, I want everyone to know that it has nothing to do with anything improper or illegal or anything like that,” he said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it and I think when the winds of change are upon you, there’s not a lot you can do about it,” he said.

Katko accepted a position as principal of the sixth grade academy in Pojoaque.

Another story that stirred the community was the Nov. 4 announcement that Los Alamos High School Principal Grace Brown would retire Dec. 31.

Brown explained that when she checked on her retirement status in July she discovered she was actually losing money every day that she worked and realized her income would be higher if she retired.

Sandy Warnock is serving as interim principal through the remainder of the current school year. She has worked at LAHS for 25 years as both special education teacher and administrator. She is currently assistant principal.

Another story that garnered a lot of reaction and continues to develop involves the Art Center at Fuller Lodge. Former Board Chair Phil Kilgour plead guilty in August to disorderly conduct.

Police initially charged Kilgour with assault after he became enraged at a May board meeting, stood up and flipped a large table over, barely missing the board secretary.

“The meeting had adjourned and I left, then I heard a crash. I saw Mr. Kilgour doubled over with purple lips,” ACFL Executive Director John Werenko said at the time.

In the ensuing melee at the meeting, Kilgour broke his glasses and crushed his cough drops, according to on-scene witnesses. In an interview after he was charged with assault, Kilgour suggested he lost control of his temper because he had a sinus infection, was taking antihistamines, had a cough and was taking cough drops.

Kilgour resigned from the board in June.

Many in the community mourned the loss of longtime Los Alamos resident and former county councilor Jim West who died in November. West was fighting a cancer that had metastasized and was found to be in an advanced stage.

Hundreds of cancer survivors joined family and friends for a Relay for Life event at Ashley Pond in June. West was the honorary chairman of the event.

“I have Jim West on the phone listening to us from his hospital bed. Jim wanted to be here and has asked me to read a letter aloud that he wrote to all of you,” County Council Vice Chair Michael Wismer said at the time. “I am so honored to be a part of this wonderful event — even from a distance.”

West went on to say that life deals a hard hand to play every now and then and the measure of a person’s character can be demonstrated by how he or she plays that hand.

“We don’t give up and throw in the bad hand,” he said. “You can’t win if you don’t play to win. I’m playing to win and I hope every one of you who have experienced what every cancer patient goes through will encourage each other to keep on playing and winning.”

West encouraged those fighting cancer to think of their families, friends, homes and the beautiful mountains surrounding Los Alamos to lift them up whenever they’re feeling down.

He thanked his many supporters … most of all for the prayers that have been spoken on his behalf.

“One thing that carries me through each day, he said, is the knowledge that ‘although I don’t know what tomorrow holds, I know who holds tomorrow’.”

Community members also were affected by the loss of longtime anti-nuclear activist Ed Grothus who lost his battle with cancer in January. The outspoken 87-year-old died quietly in his Los Alamos home surrounded by his family.

“When one is legendary, one must do legendary things,” Grothus often said. And so he did. One only need Google his name to find Grothus the subject in a trove of stories and articles in newspapers and magazines around the world. He’s also featured in several documentaries and a video streamed on YouTube.