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Nick Deshais takes a break to remove his jacket near the Swinomish Casino, June 10, 2015, during his 416 mile U. S. Bike Route 10 ride across Washington State to the town of Newport. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Nick Deshais: Favorite stories of 2015

| By Nicholas Deshais

The work of a daily reporter is not the stuff of moviemaking. Deadlines, press releases and the short-term memory loss of the news cycle is more a prescription for madness than anything else.

Still, it’s fun to look over the past year and be thankful that I survived at all. Tendonitis can be quite painful, you know.

The stories below are my favorites, listed in chronological order.

1. “Merrill Womach, a renowned singer who survived fiery crash, celebrated at funeral

A photo of famed gospel singer Merrill Womach is seen on his casket during his memorial service on Saturday, Jan 10, 2015, at Fourth Memorial Church in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland)
A photo of famed gospel singer Merrill Womach is seen on his casket during his memorial service on Saturday, Jan 10, 2015, at Fourth Memorial Church in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Merrill Womach’s face was roughhewn and imperfect, as if its maker had little patience for particulars. People stared, and Womach didn’t blame them. He was a sight to behold.

His voice, however, was a true thing of wonder. Where his face was uneven and seemingly made from clay with thumbs, his voice was pure and strong, a beautiful tenor that spanned four octaves. He was called the man with 42 voices.

My year in reporting began with an obituary for Merrill Womach, whose January funeral was attended by about 150 people. I never met Womach, and in fact had never heard of him until after he died, but his heroic tale of surviving a plane crash, coupled with his beautiful voice and impact on funeral music, left me reeling.

The online version has photos, samples of Womach’s music and a short documentary called “He Restoreth My Soul,” from 1975.

2. “Math fans fully encircled by pi’s wonders today

Larry Shaw, the Prince of Pi, celebrates Pi Day at the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 2014.
Larry Shaw, the Prince of Pi, celebrates Pi Day at the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 2014.

What’s so special about pi? It’s just the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. Simple enough. But as we start looking at its numerical properties, its mysteries unfurl. It’s an irrational number, meaning it cannot be expressed as a ratio or fraction. It’s also a transcendental number, meaning it never, ever repeats itself. Without it, we can never know circles. Without knowing circles, we know nothing. No wheels, no moon landing, no doughnuts.

Pi goes on and on and on. Forever.

I took years of mathematics in college before journalism snagged me, but numbers still have a hold on me. I was happy to write this story about Pi Day, annually held on March 14, for just that reason. Having a father-in-law who conceived of the day, however, made this story one I’ll never forget.

My wife and I headed down to San Francisco, the birthplace of Pi Day, for this year’s celebration. As I watched a line of well-wishers and signature-seekers form towards the Prince of Pi (my wife’s father), I again realized how one person can really change people’s lives and minds.

3. Tour Deshais

Nick Deshais takes in the moment Friday on Bridge Street as he finishes his cross-state bicycle ride from Anacortes, Wash., to Sandpoint. (Dan Pelle)
Nick Deshais takes in the moment Friday on Bridge Street as he finishes his cross-state bicycle ride from Anacortes, Wash., to Sandpoint. (Dan Pelle)

Ten days and 449 miles ago, I loaded my bike with bags and gear at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, steeling myself to ride across the state to Sandpoint.

My mind was clogged with misgivings, fears that my legs weren’t up for the journey. Or worse, that my backbone – the figurative one – wasn’t.

That’s when two women rode by me, their bikes packed tall and wide.

“We’re going to Maine,” they yelled. This was no boast, just an excited statement of fact, and it had the effect of making my statewide trip seem not so hard after all.

Today, on my last day of riding, I woke with no worries. The wind was at my back, Lake Pend Oreille beckoned and there was a chance I’d meet again some of the bike travelers I’d met along the way. I told them all to lunch at Joel’s, a burrito shop in Sandpoint. That’s where I’d find them.

Aside from the distance, the hills, the headwinds and the heat, there was always one constant on my trip across Washington on U.S. Bicycle Route 10 that kept me moving – my eyes searching the horizon.

The people.

I’m proud of my investigative work and daily beat reporting, but none of it matches the joy and sense of achievement I felt by doing this 10-day series riding the new United States Bicycle Route across the state.

These stories ran as Rachel Dolezal rocketed to the fore of national news, and I was content to be far away from City Hall, pedaling across the Evergreen State.

4. “Spokane sues Monsanto in action tied to PCBs in river

The city of Spokane has filed a lawsuit against the international agrochemical giant Monsanto, alleging that the company sold chemicals for decades that it knew were a danger to human and environmental health, and is at fault for polluting the Spokane River.

My beat is Spokane City Hall, but some of my favorites stories had nothing to do with politics or government at all, as the above selections show. But sometimes a straightforward story done in one day turns into something else altogether.

Of course, I should’ve known that this story would be interesting to a lot of people, but I wasn’t prepared for Neil Young’s attention.

Neil Young performs at Farm Aid 30 in Chicago on Sept. 19, 2015. (Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)
Neil Young performs at Farm Aid 30 in Chicago on Sept. 19, 2015. (Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP)

5. “Yard Work: Spokane hopes to turn long-neglected area into industrial hub

Randy Hastings, owner of R&R Heating and Air Conditioning, stands in The Yard. “We’ve got to get infrastructure,” he said. (Dan Pelle)
Randy Hastings, owner of R&R Heating and Air Conditioning, stands in The Yard. “We’ve got to get infrastructure,” he said. (Dan Pelle)

Randy Hastings’ drive to work takes him to the east side of Spokane, over the dirt roads of Hillyard to the forgotten part of town where he’s kept his business – R&R Heating and Air Conditioning – since 1987. He drives past empty lots, decrepit homes, a trailer park, warehouses, laboratories and large grocery store distribution complexes. The roads shift from paved to graveled, new to old, from being bordered by sidewalks and landscaping to a fuzzy edge of overgrown weeds.

Below Spokane, there sits garbage. No one knows how much, or how toxic it is, or even where it is, but it’s there. This story examined the city’s work to spur an industrial revival in Hillyard, work that begins with determining what was buried decades ago and finding ways to clean it up.

The mysteries of forgotten pollution fascinate me. How can a city that’s been documented since its inception – by this paper no less – forget so easily? I don’t know, but it happens. A landfill that used to be regularly set on fire was totally forgotten until city workers dug into it, leading to an expensive clean-up and a recognition that we truly don’t know what lies beneath.

6. “Spokane comes together, gives away 7,500 Thanksgiving meals for Tom’s Turkey Drive

After receiving his turkey and meal fixings, Chris O’Grady waits for his ride to take him home from the Spokane Arena, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
After receiving his turkey and meal fixings, Chris O’Grady waits for his ride to take him home from the Spokane Arena, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Chris O’Grady spent 26 years building “bridges and highways” as a surveyor.

“I used to be able to do trig in my head faster than the kids in college,” said O’Grady, 47, wearing his father’s Vietnam-era Army jacket and black felt cowboy hat. A frozen turkey weighed down the backpack dangling from the rear of his wheelchair.

Two years ago, he was hit by a car in front of his house, leaving him unable to walk, with severe, and permanent, nerve damage.

“He didn’t hit the brakes until he hit me. Then he slid 30 feet,” he said, somehow with a smile. In what he calls the “definition of irony,” he survived decades of dangerous road work unscathed, but was run down by a driver distracted by text messages not far from his front door.

Seven surgeries later, he makes $190 in monthly supplemental security income from the government. He barely gets by on the benefits. Thanksgiving would have gone on, with or without the free meal he had on his lap. He simply would’ve cut corners and skimped on other expenses.

“It’s my favorite time of year,” he said. “There are a lot of good people out there. You just have to look for them.”

Staff photographer Colin Mulvany came to me with a simple enough idea. Go to the annual turkey drive and ask the people there one question: Why are you here?

This led us to document a moment in time for 11 people, in which they told their story. Seeing their love, joy and resolve in the face of such trying experiences had an impact on me and many readers, judging by the emails and phone calls I received.

We paired my small profiles with Colin’s masterful portraits.

7. “Records unveil layers of secrecy at Spokane City Hall

Frank Straub, left, and Mayor David Condon in 2013. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Frank Straub, left, and Mayor David Condon in 2013. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

They draw the curtains in a room of Spokane City Hall when the cameras roll.

On Sept. 22, reporters were given eight minutes to rush to that room adjacent to the mayor’s office on the seventh floor, where the mayor’s lectern already was set up, and the three flags of country, state and city hung as backdrop for a hastily called news conference about the forced resignation of police Chief Frank Straub.

Unlike those in the room, and the public they would be reporting to, Spokane Mayor David Condon had more than eight minutes to prepare for the day he’d take Straub’s badge because of allegations about the chief’s behavior toward employees. He had more than five months.

I am continually reminded and amazed by what asking questions can do.

In this case, those questions led to uncovering secrets at City Hall, an independent investigation by a former federal prosecutor and an examination by the city’s Ethics Commission.

And a bit of gray hair on my head.

Lead photo credit: Nick Deshais takes a break to remove his jacket near the Swinomish Casino, June 10, 2015, during his 416 mile U. S. Bike Route 10 ride across Washington State to the town of Newport. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)