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The top 10 stories of 2014 in Chicago and Illinois

By almost any measure, it was a hectic year in the city and state. Any number of stories in 2014 demanded towering headlines: local fears about preparing for the Ebola virus, the CTA Blue Line train crash at O’Hare International Airport, the “polar vortex” and the controversial and swoopy design for filmmaker George Lucas’ museum along the lakefront.

And those were some of the stories that weren’t among our picks for biggest news stories of the year. Here’s what were, in a survey of the Chicago Sun-Times staff:

1. An out-of-touch billionaire with nine mansions — 10, if you include the one he will soon call home in Springfield. An inept incumbent — part of a combined 100 years of Democratic corruption and patronage.

That was how the candidates portrayed each other in the bitter, $100-million race for governor. Though polls showed a neck-and-neck race, businessman Bruce Rauner beat Gov. Pat Quinn by 3.9 percentage points. Now, Rauner must find a way to solve the state’s myriad problems while trying to work with House Speaker Mike Madigan, Sen. President John Cullerton — and the rest of the “Springfield crowd” he vilified in the run-up to the election.

2. Perhaps we thought it couldn’t get much worse than to see the promising life of King College Prep sophomore Hadiya Pendleton extinguished by a stray bullet in 2013. If so, we were wrong. Although at year’s end the city was on course to have one of the lowest homicide totals in decades, it didn’t feel that way. Among the innocent victims: Endia Martin, 14; Shamiya Adams, 11; Antonio Smith, 9; and, near year’s end, 15-year-old twin Demario Bailey.

Endia Martin wanted to visit Paris and Rome and join the Navy or go to college, her stepfather said. She was shot and killed in April.
Endia Martin wanted to visit Paris and Rome and join the Navy or go to college, her stepfather said. She was shot and killed in April.

3. The Chicago Archdiocese’s 2.2 million Catholics said goodbye to an ailing Cardinal Francis George, as the sometimes-divisive leader continued his battle with cancer in a more private setting. Though some said George would be remembered for his rigid opposition to gay marriage and abortion, others pointed to his strength and humility in dealing with his own mortality.

George’s departure meant Chicago-area Catholics had to wrap their mouths around a new name, Blase Cupich. The new archbishop has offered hints that his flock can expect a more progressive approach, more in line with Pope Francis’ thinking.

Archbishop Designate Most Rev. Blase J. Cupich (left) is introduced by Francis Cardinal George earlier this year. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times
Archbishop Designate Most Rev. Blase J. Cupich (left) is introduced by Francis Cardinal George earlier this year. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

4. Despite a movement to draft a formidable 2015 challenger to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the two candidates thought most capable of toppling the one-term mayor bowed out of the race:

  • Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was long seen as the most threatening challenger to Emanuel, with one poll showing her 24 percentage points ahead of the mayor in a one-on-one matchup. That poll prompted her to finally end months of speculation, though, telling reporters in July she would not run.
  • Attention, and pledges of big-money support, soon shifted to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. But Lewis pulled out of mayoral contention when doctors discovered in October she was suffering from a cancerous brain tumor.

Now, Emanuel’s two strongest challengers are Ald. Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who was endorsed by Lewis after her diagnosis.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis emerged as perhaps Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s srongest challenger for re-election, until a brain tumor forced her to announce she would not seek the city’s top elected post. | Sun-Times Library
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis emerged as perhaps Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s srongest challenger for re-election, until a brain tumor forced her to announce she would not seek the city’s top elected post. | Sun-Times Library

5. You didn’t have to like baseball — or even know the rules of the game — to love this story: A South Side team of 11-to-13-year-old boys won the Little League national championship and were one win shy of winning the world title. The city showed its love for the Jackie Robinson West Little League team by throwing a huge party that culminated in a rally in Millennium Park. An estimated 10,000 fans greeted the team. “The South Side is not just about bad things,” pitcher Marquis Jackson told the crowd. “Something big can come from the South Side of Chicago. Period.”

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose with the 2014 US champion Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little Baseball League in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 2014. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPASYURI GRIPAS/A
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose with the 2014 US champion Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little Baseball League in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 2014. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPASYURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images

6. Chances are, before an incident in late September, you didn’t even know the Federal Aviation Administration had a facility in Aurora. That likely changed on Sept. 26, when a disgruntled contractor allegedly sabotaged the FAA air traffic control facility there, disrupting thousands of flights across the United States for days. The contractor, Brian Howard of Naperville, has been charged with setting the fire in a basement telecommunications room and then trying to take his own life.

Long lines filled Midway Airport (above) and O’Hare International Airport in September, after an arson fire at a suburban air-traffic control facility shut down both airports and disrupted air travel nationwide. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times
Long lines filled Midway Airport (above) and O’Hare International Airport in September, after an arson fire at a suburban air-traffic control facility shut down both airports and disrupted air travel nationwide. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

7. Gay marriage. A 2013 story, you say. That year, state lawmakers made Illinois the 16th state in the country to allow gay weddings. But the festivities didn’t start until 2014. Couples who’d been waiting for decades were among those who tied the knot. And the city celebrated with perhaps its largest crowd ever — 1 million — for the annual Pride Parade.

The first day that same-sex marriage was allowed by law in Illinois was marked by ceremonies and celebrations. | Sun-Times Library
The first day that same-sex marriage was allowed by law in Illinois was marked by ceremonies and celebrations. | Sun-Times Library

8. Just days before he was to stand trial, former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko walked into a Cook County courtroom on Jan. 31 and admitted he threw a lone punch that killed David Koschman — a stunning admission in a case Chicago Police had botched in two separate investigations over 10 years.

Vanecko, 40, apologized to Koschman’s mother and served 60 days in jail for involuntary manslaughter. His plea was the result of an investigation by special prosecutor Dan K. Webb, who was appointed in the wake of dozens of Sun-Times reports that exposed how police failed to seek charges against the mayor’s nephew, instead concluding that the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Vanecko acted in self-defense when he punched the 5-foot-5, 125-pound Koschman during a drunken confrontation in the Rush Street nightlife district.

Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko leaving the Rolling Meadows courthouse after pleading guilty Jan. 31 to involuntary manslaughter in David Koschman’s death. | Brian O’Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media
Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko leaving the Rolling Meadows courthouse after pleading guilty Jan. 31 to involuntary manslaughter in David Koschman’s death. | Brian O’Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

9. Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed has called her “the forgotten mayor.” Jane Byrne was frail and in a wheelchair when she died in November at age 81 but the city’s first and only woman mayor took delight before her passing in hearing radio announcers talking about the city’s newly named “Jane Byrne Interchange.” Byrne was a political novice when she overcame the city’s political machine in 1979 to become mayor.

Mayor Jane Byrne and her daughter Kathy Byrne (left) listen to governor Pat Quinn (right) speak during the dedication earlier this year by the governor renaming the circle interchange to the Jane Byrne Interchange Friday afternoon at University of Illinoi
Mayor Jane Byrne and her daughter Kathy Byrne (left) listen to governor Pat Quinn (right) speak during the dedication earlier this year by the governor renaming the circle interchange to the Jane Byrne Interchange Friday afternoon at University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Byrne died in November.| Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

“We are a better city because of her,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at her funeral.

10. There’s no medical marijuana being grown or sold — yet. But 2014 was the year Illinois officials got the mechanics of the state’s law allowing seriously ill people the option of using medical pot. Illinois officials hope to soon award coveted and limited licenses. And state officials hope Illinois’ new crop is grown, sold and used by patients in 2015.

Growing and selling marijuana for medical purposes is now legal in Illinois. | File Photo
Growing and selling marijuana for medical purposes is now legal in Illinois. | File Photo

Contributing: Jon Seidel Tim Novak, Chris Fusco, Becky Schlikerman and the Associated Press.