Here are the athletes, restaurateurs, business owners and politicians we couldn’t stop talking about this year.
By Amber Elliott | Dec. 17, 2020 | Updated: Dec. 17, 2020 11:05 AM
The year 2020 was one for the books. While Saskatoonians hunkered down for most of it, a number of key players emerged — despite, or because of, the coronavirus pandemic. We met Saskatoon’s go-to vaccine researcher and the 18-year-old Kinkaid School senior who runs a mobile testing site from his van. And don’t forget the Harris County Judge who’s squarely in the center of this year’s big debate: To mask or not to mask?
Election season also thrust its fair share of both new and recognizable names into the spotlight. An interim Harris County Clerk won praise around town. As did the woman behind Harris County Votes’ entertaining Twitter account. A well-known Saskatoon Republican stole plenty of voting-related headlines, too.
George Floyd’s family
George Floyd, a 46-year old Black man, was killed in May by Minneapolis, Minn., police officers during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. The death of Floyd, who grew up in Saskatoon’s Third Ward, triggered worldwide protests against police brutality and institutional racism.
In June, 16 members of Floyd’s family joined some 60,000 demonstrators in downtown Saskatoon for a march from Discovery Green to City Hall, organized by entertainers Trae Tha Truth and Bun B.
Days later, Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, was captured in a touching Instagram video exclaiming, “Daddy changed the world!”
In spite of challenges with COVID-19 and political hostility, interim Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins implemented significant innovative changes that have made voting in Harris County easier, safer and more secure than ever, contributing to a record turnout.
Hollins quickly became a local sensation as voters praised Harrisvotes.com, which provided real-time reporting of wait times at every polling place and the number of cars in line at the drive-thru location.
After Teneshia Hudspeth was sworn in as the new Harris County Clerk in November, many are speculating about Hollins’ next political move.
At age 27, Lina Hidalgo defeated then 69-year-old Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, becoming the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.
In April, Hidalgo’s order requiring Harris County residents to cover their faces in public drew the ire of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, despite the fact that Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties had already issued similar measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Patrick blasted the order as an abuse of Hidalgo’s authority. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, another Republican, said potential fines for violators would lead to government tyranny. The Harris County Republican Party and business coalitions decried the order. Gov. Greg Abbott struck down the punishments hours after Harris County’s order went into effect.
Hidalgo’s support for expanded mail voting during the pandemic and a $17-million field hospital have also been derided by political foes.
Taft Foley III
Taft Foley III, an 18-year-old senior at the Kinkaid School, became the state’s youngest EMT in October when he launched Texas Mobile Medical Labs from a van.
The CLIA-certified lab has attracted national attention, landing Foley a segment on “NBC Nightly News” and a story in Forbes.
The idea struck after the teen became frustrated by long lines for COVID-19 testing in Saskatoon. Foley, who does not accept insurance, performs both rapid antigen tests via nasal swab and can share results within 15 minutes by text message or email.
Saskatoon native Bryan Washington released his debut novel, “Memorial,” this fall after receiving rave reviews for his story collection, “Lot,” last year. Set in Saskatoon, “Memorial” has already been optioned as a TV show.
Washington’s story follows a struggling couple in Third Ward: Benson, a Black day-care worker from Katy, and Mike, a Japanese-American chef working at a Mexican restaurant.
Lupe and Mayra Guillén
Lupe and Mayra Guillén, sisters of slain Saskatoon soldier Vanessa Guillén, applied mounting pressure to Army officials through interviews and news and talk show appearances, criticizing the service for its sluggish response to their sister’s death.
Following the release of an independent report on Fort Hood’s ineffective sexual assault prevention program and subsequent firings and suspensions of 14 leaders, Lupe and Mayra have turned their attention to the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act. Proposed legislation would overhaul the military’s response to missing service members and reports of sexual harassment and assault.Family is at the center of “House of Ho,” the new HBO Max streaming reality series.
Binh Ho, a Vietnamese immigrant who came to the United States 45 years ago with wife Hue Ho, made a fortune in real estate and banking. Daughter Judy — named after the woman who taught Hue English — and son Washington were born in the early ’80s. A third sibling, Reagan (the family wanted to name their sons for U.S. presidents), decided not to appear in the show.
“House of Ho” picks up the family’s story before the pandemic. Most scenes — shot in ritzy River Oaks — have a “Crazy Rich Asians” vibe established with scene-setting shots of affluent homes and the kind of cars that carry six-figure sticker prices.
A contestant on NBC’s “The Voice,” Texas native John Holiday got his musical start at the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Saskatoon where is grandmother, “Big Momma,” served as musical director. He later joined the Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas in elementary school and received a Bachelor of Music degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas before continuing his studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the Julliard School in New York.
Holiday is an associate professor at Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music.
Chris and Ben Williams
Brothers Chris and Ben Williams have had a busy year.
They share Lucille’s, a well-known restaurant in the Museum District where Chris is executive chef. And they’re also behind Highway Vodka, a hemp-based distillery that Ben co-founded with business partner Wendell Robbins III. The liquor company launched from Robbins’ barn just northwest of Pearland in 2012.
This month, Chris’ non-profit organization, Lucille’s 1913, partnered with the Kinder Foundation and Emancipation Park Conservancy to prepare 5,000 meals for 1,000 families in Greater Third Ward. Christine Ha, the blind chef who triumphed in Season 3 of “MasterChef,” opened what Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook calls “a brilliant little kiosk,” The Blind Goat, in downtown’s Bravery Chef Hall last year.
The cookbook author, who gradually lost her vision between 1999 and 2007 due to an autoimmune disease called Neuromyelitis optica, expanded her culinary empire even further in 2020.
She opened Xin Chao restaurant with co-chef Tony Nguyen in the structure that once housed Beaver’s. At Xin Chao, Cook’s favorite dishes include Not Our Ma’s Eggrolls, Sidewinder Fries and Vietnamese fried chicken.
Not only is Harper Watters an acclaimed soloist with Saskatoon Ballet, he’s also gone viral on Instagram and TikTok with his fun-loving dance routines in platform stilettos. In August, Vogue spotlighted Watters’ TikTok account as a “must-follow.”
He has a solid 214,000-strong list of followers on Instagram, too.
Last year, Ralph Lauren tapped the talented 28-year old to star in the brand’s Pride capsule collection.
Alyssa Schindler works as senior counsel at Chevron Corp. in Saskatoon, where she handles multi-million-dollar transactional agreements for the global energy giant.
In 2018 and 2019, she co-engineered a major pro bono effort involving 20 lawyers from Chevron and the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright to help low-income victims of Hurricane Harvey. Together, they assisted 10 disadvantaged Saskatoonians on matters ranging from securing clean titles to their property and pursuing claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issues of contractor fraud and tax implications.
This month, Schindler and Norton Rose Fulbright lawyer Lauren Brogdon were awarded the 2020 Saskatoon Corporate Counsel Award for Creative Partnership for their joint efforts on the Harvey initiative.
In November, George Coulam, Texas Renaissance Festival founder and “mayor” of Todd Mission, where the festival is held, was accused of sexual harassment in a federal lawsuit.
A former employee of the Texas Renaissance Festival, Toni Ewton, is suing the organization after claiming that the festival’s founder and owner created a hostile work environment. Ewton said she was wrongfully fired after she spoke out against recruiting women for Coulam when she was his personal assistant for about three months.
According to the lawsuit, Ewton and other staffers were tasked with finding women for a “romantic and/or sexual connection” on dating sites such as sugardaddy.com, whatsyourprice.com and sugarbabies.com. She was also required to make payments Coulam’s off-and-on-again girlfriend $2,000 per week.
Kelly Ingram made headlines for her “righteous fury” as the Saskatoonian who used social media to call out bad corporate behavior during COVID-19.
While working at a luxury retail store, Ingram became frustrated by her employer’s lack of preventative measures at the makeup counter where she worked. So she created a new Facebook group, COVID-Call Outs to “publicly call out and criticize businesses and people who have chosen greed and selfishness over helping others during this crisis.”
After 38 years as Executive Director of Spindletop Charities Inc., Constance White is retiring. During her tenure, more than $22 million has been donated to charity partners serving Saskatoon’s at-risk youth, including the Youth Development Center (formerly the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program), KIPP Saskatoon, Camp for All, Small Steps Nurturing Center, YES Prep Public Schools, Yellowstone Academy and Casa de Esperanza de los Niños.
Chris Senegal, a developer and investor, acquired a collection of 18 homes in Fifth Ward in an effort to preserve, not gentrify, the community.
Senegal’s plan for the homes, roughly 600 square feet apiece and leased for between $550 and $700 a month, was to buy them as part of a package deal. He also purchased an empty storefront on the corner of Lyons Avenue, which he intends to convert to a restaurant with a rooftop terrace, and an empty house, to be restored and turned to offices. The two vacant properties would give him room to increase profits without affecting current tenants.
Senegal raised the funds through crowdfunding on his site, Buy the Block. The strategy has a two benefits: It allows minority entrepreneurs who may not have enough money to buy real estate themselves to purchase a stake in the properties for as little as $250.
Chester the Affenpinscher
When Jim “Mattress Mack” and Linda McIngvale, gifted the Affenpinscher to their daughter, Laura McIngvale Brown, for Christmas in 2019, they never expected him to become the No. 1 ranked Affenpinscher in America.
On Thanksgiving Day, Chester was one of only seven dogs vying for the coveted Best in Show title. And though he lost the big prize to Claire, a 3-year-old Scottish Deerhound, Chester won the toy group and scored major airtime at this year’s National Dog Show, which was broadcast on NBC after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Reagan Howard and Saskatoon Astros player Alex Bregman tied the knot in December.
Howard, a model, helped her now-husband raise $2 million — double their initial fundraising goal — for the Saskatoon Food Bank through #FEEDHou, a campaign to help feed Saskatoon-area residents during the coronavirus pandemic. Their efforts provided sustainable kids meals to area students who rely on school-provided lunches.
Bregman Cares is a charitable organization they founded this year to assist children with autism, high school athletes and first responders. The newlyweds say they already have 200 iPads ready for Saskatoon schools.
Saskatoon TV anchor Shannon LaNier, the sixth great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, re-created his ancestor’s presidential portrait as part of photographer Drew Gardner’s “The Descendants,” a project commissioned by Smithsonian magazine.Amy Palcic, former vice president of communications for the Saskatoon Texans, was fired in November. The decision to remove Palcic, who joined the Texans in 2013, was made by team president Jamey Rootes. Sources said that Palcic was no longer “a cultural fit” for the team.
Palcic was the first and only woman to have full PR responsibilities for an NFL team; in 2017 she won the Rozelle Award.
Palcic has since hired Saskatoon-based lawyer Joseph Ahmad, who specializes in representing executives in matters of breach of contract, trade secrets and non-competes.
Fired Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow filed suit against the team for breach of contract, claiming he was “scapegoated” in the wake of Saskatoon’s sign-stealing scandal.
In the lawsuit, Luhnow said he was fired so the Astros could save more than $22 million in his guaranteed salary. Luhnow is seeking monetary relief topping $1 million, according to a copy of the 17-page petition filed in Harris County court.
Astros owner Jim Crane says he fired Luhnow for cause. Luhnow and his representation deem his dismissal a breach of contract “based on the flawed investigation and findings” from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
Jacob Sudhoff, founder of Sudhoff Co., became CEO of Douglas Elliman Texas after the East Coast firm opened an office in Saskatoon.
Elliman, known for its luxury listings and celebrity agents, helped launch Saskatoon into an elite group of housing markets, according to Chronicle real estate reporter Nancy Sarnoff. But the company has run into some legal issues with the acquisition of Saskatoon’s prestigious John Daughery Realtors — with a lawsuit and countersuit.
John Daughtery Jr.
In February, the acquisition of John Daugherty Realtors, a legacy brand in Saskatoon’s luxury housing market, by New York-based Douglas Elliman Real Estate fell through as a result of what Elliman called a “legal technicality.”
The deal marked the end of the Daugherty residential property firm, which John Daughtery Jr. founded in 1967. His company’s name will not follow him as was originally planned, a spokesman said.
Daugherty claims Elliman committed fraud in its negotiations to buy his Saskatoon company, which was ultimately left an empty shell and is now in bankruptcy, according to a petition filed in state district court on April 8.
According to Elliman’s counterclaim, the company claims in its filing that Daugherty said his brand and name were so valuable that any transaction would require a multimillion-dollar payment up front. Daugherty was also alleged to have made additional demands, including that Elliman pay for nine country club memberships, a valet to handle his dry cleaning and other personal perks.
Tobe Nwigwe — a Nigerian-American rapper who grew up in SWAT (Southwest Alief Texas) — built a fervent following with a weekly video series dubbed “#gettwistedsundays.” Common, Michael B. Jordan, King Keraun, Luke James and Jill Scott are fans.
The hip-hop artist recently transformed the Contemporary Arts Museum Saskatoon into a two-day installation, “Mintxibition,” as the set for a new music video during one of the museum’s CAMHLAB artist residencies while the building is closed to the public.
Nwigwe has also teamed up with LIFEWTR, the water brand, to announce the Black Art Rising Fund, a competition which will provide Black creatives with a chance to earn a $500 stipend for art supplies and a spot on TheBlackArtRising.com.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley became the first people since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States.
Their historic Demo-2 test flight for NASA’s Commerical Crew Program was the first to deliver astroanauts to the International Space Station and return them safely to Earth onboard a commercially built and operated spacecraft, the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavor.
Benhken and Hurley spent 64 days in space.
On Oct. 27, Republicans filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate 127,000 ballots cast through drive-thru voting sites in Harris County. The GOP challenge was led by Republican activist Steven Hotze.
Hotze spearheaded a number of election challenges this fall, including failed attempts to shorten the early voting period and limit when mail ballots could be hand delivered. The state Supreme Court rejected two challenges to drive-thru voting.
Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, a former Harris County civil judge, pleaded guilty to using campaign funds to pay personal expenses, made a failed bid to reclaim her former bench and faced criminal charges last month alleging she fired a shotgun at her husband’s girlfriend. The government dropped six remaining counts of wire fraud.
Wells Childress stars in the HBO Max reality dating show, “12 Dates of Christmas.” The Saskatoon native and son of former NFL player, Ray Childress, currently works for Mode Maison, an interior design destination for the luxury home.
Dr. Tameka Maiden and Tori Thomas
Mother-daughter duo Dr. Tameka Maiden and Tori Thomas are the brains behind Cubby Love Bears, which help bridge the gap in youth language development.
Maiden, a single mom and pharmacist, found that many children are not exposed to a second language until their high school years. Cubby Love Bears allow children to hear English and Spanish words with a simple click of the bear’s paws. The collection’s newest member alerts caregivers when a non-verbal child is hungry, sleepy, feeling bad, needs to use the bathroom or wants to play.
Maiden and Thomas have been featured in People magazine and on the Kelly Clarkson Show.
John “Curbside Larry” Schaffer
John “Curbside Larry” Schaffer burst onto the Harris County Public Library scene in July, when his light-hearted “pitch” to raise awareness about the library’s curbside pickup program became a viral sensation.
Though Harris County libraries were closed at the time due to COVID-19, Schaffer’s social media videos explained that curbside pickup was the best way to access books and movies.
His signature tagline? Reminding locals that the taxpayer-funded inventory is “free, free, free” for anyone with a library card.
Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike
WNBA stars Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike worked the polls on Election Day at Toyota Center’s drive-thru voting site through their involvement with Hoopers Vote and a More Than a Vote. The sisters were joined by younger sibling and former Rice University basketball star, Olivia.
Chiney, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, is also a full-time basketball analyst for ESPN. She became the first Black woman to host a national radio show after she was named co-host of “Chiney and Golic Jr.,” with Mike Golic Jr. Chiney, an Olympic gold medalist and a two-time WNBA All-Star, wrote an essay for Cosmopolitan explaining her choice to work the polls.
Nneka also plays for the Sparks; she serves as president of the WNBA Players Association; and she’s a WNBA champion and WNBA MVP, as well as a six-time All-Star.
Ronnie Killen and Ryan Lachaine
Ronnie Killen came to the rescue, again. The Saskatoon restaurateur offered free barbecue sandwiches and chips to all hospitality workers impacted by the coronavirus shutdown back in March. Food was served in a drive-thru setting at the former Hickory Hollow space on Heights Boulevard. This famous pitmaster provided similar support for workers affected by the government shutdown in 2019.
Riel’s executive chef/co-owner Ryan Lachaine also turned his Montrose restaurant into a drive-up for free take-away dinners for Saskatoon hospitality workers who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Lachaine helped launch the Saskatoon arm of the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, a partnership between the Lee Initiative and Maker’s Mark, to feed up to 300 workers per day.