There was no shortage of Texans who humiliated themselves, embarrassed us, and made the world a slightly worse place last year. But the good—if slightly less funny—news is that there were at least as many Texans who distinguished themselves, did us proud, and helped make Texas a kinder and more interesting place. Everyday heroes, wise centenarians, spelling bee champions, pathbreaking artists, fishermen with an odd sense of occasion, and people who turned everyone’s favorite punching bag—social media—into a tool for decency: those were the faces of Texas we’ll try to keep in mind in 2020, no matter how many fools and knaves do their worst to distract us.

As he prepared to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday, World War II veteran James South announced on Facebook that he wanted to receive 100 birthday cards. After his story went viral, the Watauga nursing home resident was sent more than 100,000 cards from all over the world.

A Houston man, stranded along I-45 by Tropical Storm Imelda, decided to pass the time by fishing in the feeder road—and ended up catching a four-pound bass, which he proudly showed off for a TV camera as he ate a Whataburger. 

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A firefighter in Alberta, Canada, who intended to order $350 worth of pizzas from a local shop called Alimo’s, accidentally ordered them from a San Antonio shop called Alamo’s. Upon learning of his mistake, he donated the eighteen pies to two San Antonio fire stations, where they were happily devoured.

Freeport’s police chief was brought to tears while swearing in a six-year-old girl with incurable cancer as an honorary police officer for a day. When asked why she wanted to be a cop, she said she hoped “to fight the bad guys in my body.” 

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In May, Austin billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith announced he will pay off the student debt of the entire 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

While delivering the commencement address at historically black Morehouse College, Austin tech investor Robert Smith, who is the wealthiest black person in America, told the graduating class that he was pledging $34 million to pay off their student loans. “On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country,” Smith said, “we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus.”

Thanks to a DNA test, a 71-year-old Arlington man who had been adopted as a child learned that the biological sister he had been seeking for decades lived less than an hour away in Little Elm. After contacting her, he discovered that she had been searching for him, too—and that he had two half-sisters he didn’t know about.

In late February, Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers took to the public-address mic with 9.4 seconds left in a game against the Dallas Mavericks and urged the L.A. crowd to cheer on Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki, who was near the end of his final season as an NBA player. “That was an emotional moment,” Nowitzki said of the enthusiastic standing ovation that followed

Testing their local Petco’s “all leashed pets are welcome” policy, an Atascosita couple brought their leashed African Watusi steer to the store, where it received a friendly reception.   

The Beaumont Enterprise reported that Belinda George, the principal at Homer Drive Elementary, in Beaumont, takes to Facebook Live every Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. to ensure that her students have a bedtime story. On “Tucked-in Tuesdays” George wears pajamas while reading books to her students—and a growing audience of children from across the country. 

After a Missouri City man tweeted on a Saturday afternoon in March that “my dad is sad cause no one is coming to his new donut shop,” dozens of customers showed up on Sunday and bought out the store’s entire stock. Crowds showed up again on Monday, as did some Twitter employees, who paid for everyone’s doughnuts.

John and Charlotte Henderson of Austin, shown circa 2010 with Bevo, are officially the oldest couple in the world.

Longhorn Village

Austin residents John and Charlotte Henderson were officially declared the oldest couple in the world. John, 106, and Charlotte, 105, also celebrated eighty years of marriage on December 15. When asked the secret to the couple’s longevity, John replied, “Live life in moderation and be cordial to your spouse.”

In what was apparently a first, the Scripps Regional Spelling Bee, held at Texas Christian University, ran out of words after eighth grader Maitri Kovuru and seventh grader Hephzibah Sujoe went 63 rounds in the tournament—43 of them head to head. Kovuru eventually prevailed in a “sudden death” written test and went on to the national competition, where she made it to the finals. She was not one of the eight co-winners—but three other Texans were.

Thanks to the support of daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and the generosity of Cheerios, Como Elementary School, in Fort Worth, which serves many students below the poverty line, received a $50,000 donation in recognition of the elaborate educational music videos math teacher Thomas Mayfield makes with his students. (In less happy news for proud residents of the Queen City of the Prairie, DeGeneres referred to the school as being located “near Dallas, Texas.”) 

When the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen couldn’t locate any surviving family of Joseph Walker, a recently deceased Air Force veteran, they put out a call on social media asking people to attend his funeral so he would not be buried alone. “We do NOT leave Veterans behind,” the Facebook post declared. In response, an estimated two thousand mourners showed up, many of whom waited in a line of cars that stretched for miles.  

UT Press published Texas Monthly writer-at-large Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, a riveting narrative of his adopted home state that offers a much-needed update to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

Using DNA from the man’s niece and nephew, the American Graves Registration Service identified the body of Pvt. Hershell Riggs of Rio Grande City, who went missing after being deployed to Korea in 1950. During Memorial Day weekend, he was buried with military honors in Pearsall, near the grave of his sister, who reportedly never gave up hope that she would someday be reunited with her brother.

best things simone

Gymnast Simone Biles, shown here on her way to setting records at the world championships in Germany in October, continued to explode the boundaries of her sport.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Houston gymnast Simone Biles, who we thought couldn’t possibly find more ways to amaze us, outdid herself on August 9, when she became the first gymnast ever to come off the balance beam with what’s known as a “double-double tucked salto dismount” and then, two days later, became the first gymnast to perform a “triple-double tucked salto.” And, oh yeah—two months later she won her 24th and 25th world medals, breaking the previous record of 23 held by Belarus’s Vitaly Scherbo.

While on a routine assignment, Dallas Morning News photojournalist Tom Fox found himself in the midst of an active shooting and, putting his life in further danger, managed to take some close-range photos of the gunman. “Your journalistic instincts just kick in,” he said. “You use the camera almost as a shield.”

Following in the footsteps of Texas A&M, the University of Texas at Austin announced that in 2020 it would begin offering full-tuition financial aid to in-state undergraduates whose families make $65,000 or less per year. 

Encuentro en la Frontera, a new three-day arts festival that took place in August in McAllen, Alton, and Brownsville, thrillingly gave voice to artists, activists, and performers in the vibrant and complex border region.

UT basketball guard Andrew Jones, who missed most of two seasons while he was being treated for leukemia, rejoined his team in November and scored twenty points in his first game back—a career high.

Candy and Jim Duke of Corpus Christi were on the beach combing for bottles to add to their collection when they stumbled upon one with a note inside that revealed that it was one of 7,863 bottles that were part of a 1962 study on how ocean currents affect the ways shrimp drift through water. Following the note’s instructions, the Dukes sent the enclosed postcard to the federal agency in charge of the study—though they waived the 50-cent reward that the note promised.   

San Antonio author Shea Serrano countered Amazon’s much-ballyhooed Prime Day, a mid-July “two-day epic parade of deals,” by encouraging his Twitter followers to order books from an independent bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas. The store received more than three hundred online orders that day, breaking its daily record.  

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Texas A&M’s Infinite Tucker leapt across the finish line in his memorable win in the 400-meter hurdles at the SEC Track & Field Championship in May.

Wesley Hitt/Texas A&M Athletics

Apparently worried that he would come in second place for the second year in a row, Texas A&M hurdler Infinite Tucker dove across the finish line of the 400-meter hurdles at this year’s SEC Track & Field Championship, winning first place and suffering bruises to his knees.

Katy native Renée Zellweger, who took five years off from making movies after 2010’s little-seen My Own Love Song, confirmed that her comeback is in full swing with a riveting performance as Judy Garland in the biopic Judy.

A Scottish recluse in his seventies known only as “Ken” fell ill at his home and sent out a distress beacon that wasn’t picked up by anyone in Scotland or anywhere else in Europe. Instead, it was heard 4,500 miles away by the International Emergency Response Coordination Center in Houston, which relayed the signal to the UK Coast Guard, which assigned a mountain rescue team to find him and bring him to a hospital, effectively saving his life. 

Lil Nas X’s record-breaking number one single, “Old Town Road,” may have been recorded in Atlanta, but it had a Texas connection: Austin-based entrepreneur Abe Batshon’s BeatStars, which allows music producers to upload and digitally license their songs to various artists, connected Lil Nas X to the Dutch teen YoungKio, who made the now iconic beat. 

When Tropical Storm Imelda stranded truck driver Reggie McCoy on I-10 in Winnie for 36 hours, he put the wholesale food delivery sitting in his eighteen-wheeler to good use. He and another driver got hold of a grill and cooked meals for more than thirty travelers who were also stranded by the storm. “We had chicken wings last night and a few grape tomatoes and chips and milk,” said McCoy.

Austin resident Coy Featherston had been homeless since 1995, until Leea Mechling saw a picture of him in an Austin American-Statesman story. She had grown up with Featherston in Corpus Christi, where he had been named “Best All Around Boy” in his 1970 high school yearbook. Mechling and several other classmates banded together to find him a place to stay, a bicycle, and art supplies. They also launched a GoFundMe page, raising more than $10,000. 

The El Paso Chihuahuas’ Selena tribute jersey.

Jonathan Yturales/El Paso Herald-Post

For its June 15 game, El Paso’s minor league baseball team, the Chihuahuas, suited up in Selena tribute uniforms, complete with rhinestoned sleeves and embroidered white roses—the singer’s trademark—on their jerseys.

Completing the 100-meter sprint in 9.98 seconds, Houston teenager Matthew Boling became the fastest high school sprinter in the country and the first high schooler to break the 10-second barrier. (The world record for 100 meters is 9.58 seconds.) Most runners peak at about age 23, so Boling should be in prime form just in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris (the one in France . . .).

Stephen F. Austin’s Lumberjacks basketball team, which is an unranked member of the Southland Conference, shocked number one seed Duke on November 26 when forward Nathan Bain scored a game-winning layup as the buzzer rang in overtime. 

San Antonio native Kate Purdy set her lauded Amazon Studios show Undone in a surreal, animated version of the city, including places famous, like the River Walk, and totally obscure, like random highway interchanges.

After football coaches at Austin’s Travis Early College High School spoke out about how poverty affects their program, a West Lake Hills resident anonymously dropped off a $5,000 check, instructing that it could only be used for football equipment. 

Eleven-year-old Houston fashion designer Jayden Allyn Washer displayed his floor-length gowns and dresses at New York’s high-profile Fashion Industry Finest Independent Designer event. And though he has global ambitions, Washer proudly reps his hometown. “New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week, London Fashion Week: those are my goals,” he says. “But I’m staying in Houston. Houston’s such an amazing place.”

boy scout list

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

To become an Eagle Scout, a Boy Scout must earn 21 merit badges. But Harry Goldberg wasn’t going to take any chances. Last year the eighteen-year-old Houstonian completed the six-year task of earning all 137 badges the Boy Scouts of America offers—plus a 138th badge, for Computing, which was discontinued after he’d completed the requirements.

Lubbock native Kimberly King Parsons’s dazzling debut collection of short stories, Black Light, was long-listed for the National Book Award. She’s currently working on a novel about “Texas, motherhood, and LSD.”

Southwest Airlines pilot Bryan Knight spent 52 years mourning his father, Roy, an Air Force pilot who went missing in action during the Vietnam War and was presumed dead. In June, when he learned his father’s remains had been found, he requested, and was granted, permission to fly them back to Texas. He brought his father’s body to Dallas’s Love Field, the same airport where the two last said goodbye more than half a century earlier.