It’s been a tough year (did you check out the Bum Steer Awards?), which is why it’s never been more important to highlight the Best Things in Texas. Featuring special shout-outs to Houston housing director Tom McCasland, Megan Thee Stallion, and the heroes of last winter’s freeze and blackouts.

This is going to sound crazy, but hear us out: 2021 wasn’t all bad news. Yes, there was the attack on the nation’s Capitol, and the week that Texas froze over and went dark, and the continuing ravages of the pandemic (not to mention the continuing ravages of the Legislature). But there were plenty of bright spots too, amid all the gloom and doom and Zoom. There were Texans who performed selfless acts of charity or chart-topping sing-alongs. There were good-hearted granddaughters, boundary-breaking basketball coaches, civic-minded CEOs, and chronic chess champions. And when Texas did freeze over and shut down, many of us lived up to the spirit of our state’s underappreciated motto: “Friendship.” No, 2021 may not have been the best of times. But thanks to countless kindly Texans, it didn’t always feel like the worst either. 

The phrase “Zoom cat lawyer” entered the lexicon when Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton attended a civil forfeiture hearing at Texas’s 394th Judicial District Court via Zoom using a computer that he hadn’t realized was outfitted with a filter that made him look like a cat. “I’m not a cat,” Ponton purred to the presiding judge. 

The University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley chess team won the national President’s Cup championship for the third consecutive year.  

Patches, a mutt who was held at the Austin Animal Center for more than 1,900 days, was finally adopted. 

The Whiting family, of Fort Hood, was vacationing on a beach in Monterey, California, when ten-year-old Haylee and her mother, Samantha, got caught in a riptide. A competitive swimmer named Kevin Cozzi leaped into the water and saved both of them. In gratitude, Samantha raised more than $70,000 on GoFundMe, which she hoped would cover Cozzi’s upcoming wedding and help him and his bride place a down payment on a new home. 

The (sort-of) San Antonio–based Whataburger chain awarded its 46,000 employees more than $90 million in bonuses during a challenging year. 

A couple held their wedding ceremony in Live Oak two months earlier than planned so they could celebrate with the bride’s terminally ill grandmother, who died two days later.

Becky Hammon
Ronald Cortes/Getty

When Gregg Popovich was ejected from a game against the Los Angeles Lakers late last December, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, a former WNBA star, became the first woman to take on the role of head coach during an official NBA game. 

H-E-B chairman and CEO Charles Butt opened a $200 million campus for his Holdsworth Center, a learning facility for public school leaders, and spent considerable political capital on pushing Governor Greg Abbott to release federal education dollars to schools that were in dire need because of the pandemic.

Viral bat at the Bat World Sanctuary in Weatherford.
Courtesy of Bat World Sanctuary

Statler, an arthritic, one-eyed 33-year-old fruit bat, became a viral sensation when someone posted a video of his caretakers at the Bat World Sanctuary, in Weatherford, cuddling him, feeding him fruit salad, and carrying him around the facility in their outstretched arms so he could “fly.” (Statler passed away in late July, a few months after becoming internet-famous.) 

In April, after a months-long battle, the Clyde Consolidated Independent School District, near Abilene, adopted a more gender-neutral dress code, enabling openly gay teen Trevor Wilkinson—who had been subject to multiple suspensions for wearing nail polish—to return to high school. 

Football player Martie McCoy of the Muenster Hornets
Stephen Garcia/Abilene Reporter-News

With two seconds left in a tied football playoff game against the undefeated Hamlin Pied Pipers, Martie McCoy, a female player for the Muenster Hornets, kicked a field goal to win the game 31–28.

Houston rapper Monaleo’s video for her song “Beating Down Yo Block” was released in April—and has drawn nearly eight million views on YouTube.

A woman walking along Matagorda Beach found a message in a bottle that had been sent from Prince Edward Island, in Canada, nearly three years earlier.

To save a puppy that had gotten stuck in a drainpipe, Houston firefighters dug a hole in a concrete slab and then held the owner upside down by the ankles as he pulled the dog out.

Nelson Wolff, the longtime Bexar County judge and former San Antonio mayor who helped win World Heritage status for the city’s historic missions and create the Mission Reach trail that connects them, announced that he will retire from politics after his term ends in 2023.

The Conroe school district voted to name a new elementary school after native daughter Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hemingses of Monticello. 

Pride cookies
Courtesy of Confections

Not long after Confections, a bakery in Lufkin, posted a photo on Facebook of rainbow-colored cookies that it had created for Pride Month, it lost followers on the social-media platform and a customer canceled a large order. In response, hundreds of supporters of the bakery lined up and bought everything in stock. 

University of North Texas softball pitcher Hope Trautwein not only pitched a perfect game against Arkansas–Pine Bluff, she struck out every single batter

A Georgetown man who, because of the pandemic, hadn’t seen his wife in a year was reunited with his spouse at her nursing home for their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

Larry McMurtry’s death was met with the acclamation appropriate for the world-class author of The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove. 

Austin psychedelic soul band the Black Pumas were nominated for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and Best American Roots Performance at the Grammys and played their hit song “Colors” during the award show’s telecast.

After years of dealing with objects being thrown on its roof from the neighboring Crowne Plaza River Oaks, the Houston comic-book shop Third Planet filed a lawsuit against the hotel that included an original thirteen-page comic book

Actor Jonathan Majors on SNL
Will Heath/NBC

The actor Jonathan Majors, who grew up mostly in the Dallas area, starred in the revisionist western The Harder They Fall, hosted Saturday Night Live, and made an unannounced appearance as a super-villain on the Disney+ series Loki.

A 37-year-old Fannett woman took an Ancestry-DNA test and was reunited with a half sister she had been separated from more than three decades earlier.

Grand Prairie native Selena Gomez released a Spanish-language EP and produced and starred in the critically acclaimed comedy series Only Murders in the Building alongside Steve Martin and Martin Short. 

The San Antonio Fire Department’s Technical Rescue Team saved a stray kitten that had gotten its head stuck in a wheel’s lug hole for two days, by cutting it out with a rotary saw. The family that brought the cat to the fire department later adopted it. 

A 72-year-old Kingwood man who has run races on every continent and in all fifty states completed his 794th marathon in late November.

As they were checking their luggage at the Lubbock airport, a couple headed for Las Vegas were told that one of their suitcases was over the weight limit—and discovered that their five-pound Chihuahua, Icky, had stowed away in a cowboy boot.

Two male gentoo penguins at SeaWorld San Antonio.
Courtesy of Sea World San Antonio

At SeaWorld San Antonio, two male gentoo penguins (which are considered one of the shyest penguin species) incubated the egg of a chinstrap penguin (which is regarded as one of the most aggressive) and then raised the baby as their own.

The Dallas owner of an air-conditioning company, looking to make up for shoddy work performed by his firm under a previous owner, replaced a woman’s failing HVAC unit—and waived the $11,700 cost.

In May, Simone Biles became the first woman known to perform a Yurchenko double pike vault. Two months later, she spurred an unprecedented public conversation about mental health and gymnasts when she withdrew from several events at the Summer Olympics, citing a psychological phenomenon known as the “twisties.” 

Dallas-raised Demi Lovato appeared on the presidential inaugural special Celebrating America, released a four-part documentary series about their life, put out a new album that debuted at number two on the Billboard chart, launched a weekly podcast series and a talk show, and premiered a television show in which Lovato, their sister, and their best friend search for extraterrestrial life. 

Orion Jean, a ten-year-old from Fort Worth, organized a drive to deliver tens of thousands of donated meals to families in need and hundreds of thousands of books to children in need.

Santa window cleaners at Methodist Children's Hospital in San Antonio
Courtesy of Methodist Children’s Hospital

Window cleaners dressed as Santa Claus and his elves rappelled down the side of a San Antonio children’s hospital to greet patients from a safe distance.

A Fort Worth woman whose Guinness World Record–setting fingernails were a combined 24 feet long had them cut for the first time in nearly thirty years.

An animal shelter in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,  found a Chihuahua that had gone missing six years earlier in San Antonio and reunited it with its owner. 

After a series of false starts and not-quite-finished repairs, the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park, which closed for repairs in 2018 and reopened briefly in 2019 before closing again, reopened once again in June—just in time to gladden the hearts of West Texans looking for some relief from the summer heat.

A dehydrated alligator that was found on a Padre Island beach, four hundred miles west of its Louisiana home, was taken by National Park Service rangers to a rehabilitation center.

A driver spotted a young boy choking on a bottle cap on the side of a road in Texas City, just north of Galveston, hopped out of his car, and saved the child’s life by performing the Heimlich maneuver.

Largest bluefin tuna caught off the coast of Texas.
Maxwell Bocanegra/LovnLife Productions

In April, Port Aransas fisher Troy Lancaster set a new record for the largest bluefin tuna caught off the coast of Texas when, after a nine-hour struggle, he reeled in an 876-pounder almost exactly one year after the previous record of 820 pounds was set. Because of its massive size, the fish accounted for nearly one quarter of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s annual bluefin tuna quota in the Gulf.

Frustrated by the time he spent placed on hold while trying to reach a human at the Texas Workforce Commission, unemployed Austin musician Justin Sherburn wrote an album of songs called Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music, which he described as “ambient meditations inspired by . . . navigating the corridors of government administration.” A few months later, the album was adopted by the TWC as its official hold music.

Rapper Post Malone donated hundreds of pairs of his signature line of Crocs to students and staff at his alma mater, Grapevine High School.

The State Fair of Texas returned! 

A 34-year-old man went viral on social media when he repeatedly walked his pet camel along the streets of Dallas. 

The Houston Astros made it to the World Series without, so far as we know, cheating. (And then fell to the Atlanta Braves in six games.)

Comedy writer and podcast host Demi Adejuyigbe, who grew up in Plano and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, released the sixth—and reportedly final—entry in his series of annual videos in which he dances to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September.” It drew more than a million views on YouTube and raised more than $1 million for charity.  

A physician at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio invented a straw-like device that can apparently cure hiccups. 

Reverend Luis Urriza, a hundred-year-old Catholic priest, retired from his Beaumont parish after seven decades of service.

Nine students with 5.0 GPAs graduated from Harris County’s Bellaire High School as co-valedictorians.

Baby with Texas-shaped birthmark
Jordan Stancell Photography

A Lubbock couple gave birth to a baby boy with a Texas-shaped birthmark on his torso and named him Houston. 

After hours of excavation, firefighters rescued a four-year-old boy who had fallen into a well in Garceno, in the Rio Grande Valley.

Texas Parks and Wildlife released two orphaned black bears into a remote area of southwest Texas.

Salenah Cartier graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the age of seventeen—and immediately set her sights on receiving a master’s degree from the university.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Best Things in Texas.” Subscribe today.