As is our custom, we solicited from readers and staff ideas for people to be honored as the Arkansan of the Year for 2009.
Among readers, the leading nominee was a runaway:
• 10-year-old Will Phillips, a West Fork fifth grader, won acclaim and national TV appearances for his silent protest in support of equal rights for all Americans, particularly gay people. He refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with his class, which prompted a failed effort at coercion by his substitute teacher and a trip to the principal's office, along with jeering from classmates. Will stood firm.
Others of note in Arkansas last year:
• Arkansas military members. Hardly a week passed without news of Guard or Reserve or active duty Air Force troops coming and going from duty in world trouble spots.
• Kris Allen. The clean-cut Conway singer won a popular victory as America's Idol.
• Lt. Gov. Bill Halter saw the state lottery he championed (and for which he was Arkansan of the Year last year) come to full flower. He also arranged Arkansas's participation in a mass free medical clinic that illustrated how badly the country needs health-care reform.
• Ernie Passailaigue was drawn to Arkansas by almost $400,000 a year in pay and perks to add to his South Carolina lottery retirement. He was joined by some other high-priced South Carolina help, but the lottery was up and running quickly with revenues meeting even the most optimistic forecasts.
• Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar. The stars of a reality TV show about their huge family, they welcomed a premature 19th child who weighed barely more than a pound after an emergency C-section and suddenly wanted privacy for their family after years of seeking publicity relentlessly and profitably.
• Debra Hale Shelton. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's one-person news bureau in Conway continued to be a one-woman procession of news scoops, most about the financial mess at the University of Central Arkansas created during the administration of former president Lu Hardin.
• Jerry Jones. Rose City's favorite son opened a billion-dollar new stadium for his Dallas Cowboys, also home to an annual game between his alma mater, the University of Arkansas, and Texas A&M.
• Bobby Petrino. OK, the Liberty Bowl was a close call. But the Hog football coach seems to have convinced most Razorback faithful that a mature adult is in charge and the future is bright.
• Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former Arkansas first lady became secretary of state and performed with grace, grit and energy.
• Charlaine Harris. The Magnolia vampire novelist became a mega-hit internationally.
• Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett. The Arkansas natives were two of the best pitchers in major league baseball.
• Gov. Mike Beebe. Careful and expert at legislative matters, the governor steered a calm and popular course through difficult economic times. Pressed to answer questions on tough issues — guns, gay rights, etc. — he'd invariably give the right answer, if quietly.
• Free speech. The Arkansas legislature resisted a gun lobby onslaught and preserved public access to the list of people with permits to carry concealed weapons. The Arkansas Times' publication of the list prompted several threats of violence from gun nuts.
• Justin Moore. The country singer was Billboard's top new country artist of the year and hit No. 1 with his “Smalltown U.S.A.,” an authentic anthem for someone from tiny Poyen.
• Beth Ditto. The plus-sized punk rocker from White County continued to draw raves from international audiences and she played a successful homecoming concert at Vino's.
• Mike Huckabee. The former governor produced another book that hit best-seller lists, took over Paul Harvey's radio slot and proved a popular Fox News show host. He remains high on the list of future Republican presidential contenders.
• Maurice Clemmons. The Arkansas ex-con was slain in Washington after allegedly killing four law enforcement officers. The commutation of his sentence by then-Gov. Huckabee many years ago likely will be an enduring political issue.
• Teabaggers. The Tea Party movement, complete with protestors with teabags dangling from their caps at early demonstrations, wasn't wholly organized and financed by special interests, but such help didn't hurt. But their grievances against government and taxes were real, or at least loud, enough to become a factor in state and national politics. Their shrill cries at meetings on health care spooked many politicians. Teabaggers had local corollaries — particularly in Searcy, Hot Springs and Fayetteville — who rose to challenge various local taxes and expenditures.
• Allen Kerr. The Republican legislator from Little Rock set off a statewide discussion on the double-dipping practices of various public officials and employees. It is no longer as easy to claim both a regular paycheck and a retirement check for the same work.