Heather Cox knew something we didn't. She had a pretty good idea she would be spending the holidays shivering in the cold... and loving it. When we asked about the possibility of her joining NBC Sports as the network's new NFL sideline reporter, her only answer was a smile. But that was then--on a warm spring afternoon at a Boise coffee shop. As it turned out, she's spending a good chunk of her holiday season on NBC. That means a lot of packed and unpacked bags and coast-to-coast travel.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," she said.
Cox was one of dozens of fascinating men and women we met in 2016 for conversations on everything ranging from the performing arts, to our fragile environment to the recent, bruising presidential election cycle. Regarding the latter, former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Virginia) had a spot-on prediction for Election Day 2016.
"Each candidate is so unpopular but, by and large, you'll see mostly straight-ticket voting," said Davis. "We don't always like the choices we get. Ultimately, it's about the direction of the country."
Boise State University Political Science Professor Dr. Jaclyn Kettler agreed voters were as intransigent as the candidates.
"It's not surprising to hear anything from Mr. Trump," Kettler said in May. "I don't think his argument persuades a voter one way or another."
Kettler said the same was true when gauging students' political engagement—or lack thereof.
"What I see is frustration and their feeling that there may not be too many options for them,' she said. "That said, I also see a lot of students involved in politics, even if they're not actually voting. A lot of students' political engagement is issue-driven rather than a particular campaign."
Idaho Rep. Elaine Smith (D-Pocatello) was one of the few members of her party who emerged victorious after an ugly election night for Idaho Democrats. She was elected to a ninth term, representing Idaho Legislative District No. 29. Soon thereafter, her colleagues chose her to serve as the House Minority Caucus Chair for the 2017 session—she's the only legislative minority leader who lives outside of Boise.
Sitting at her Statehouse desk last May, she said the Legislature's current political climate was vastly different now from when she first arrived in 2002.
"There was much more compromise back then," Smith said. "There simply aren't as many mainstream Republicans. But legislators are sincere about their beliefs. You just have to figure out a way to work together to further Idaho, to improve the economy, to grow the middle class."
Smith pushed back against the right-leaning Idaho Freedom Foundation, which routinely gives her low marks in its so-called "Freedom Index."
"The way I look at it, the lower you score, the more independent you are," she said.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation increased its ranks in 2016 by adding Boise physician Dr. John Livingston to its board of directors and as "special adviser on Medical policy." In his first interview after his IFF appointment, Livingston took aim at any proposal that would swell Idaho's Medicaid rolls to care for the nearly 78,000 citizens who earn too little to access coverage through the state insurance exchange and too much to qualify for standard Medicaid. Livingston, who repeatedly pointed to his faith, said it was an individual's responsibility, not a government's, to care for the uninsured.
"Nowhere in my Bible did I ever find the government was supposed to be a conduit for charity," said Livingston, saying his new role with IFF would be "to represent a philosophy, proven, from the beginning of time, that the best way to allocate scarce resources is through the free-market system."
"Charity is a personal transaction," he said. "What I do for another person is charity. But when the government becomes the conduit of charity, it's giving somebody else's money away. It's a very bad thing."
Dave Duro knows a thing or two about charity. In 1982, he started working at the Downtown Family YMCA as a janitor, pushing a broom and emptying the garbage at the Y to help pay his tuition at Boise State. Nearly 35 years later, he's CEO of the Y.
"It's not how I drew it up all those years ago," Duro said. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Duro was raised in Nampa by a single mom. Coming from modest means was one of the reasons he worked the night shift as a janitor while he attended college.
"I had no idea the power that the Y had to change people's lives," he said.
Scott Anderson changes people's lives every day. He's CEO and president of Zions Bank, but the major moneychanger didn't talk about the economy or interest rates. Rather, Anderson was anxious to talk about his passion for nonprofit organizations—particularly in the arts.
"I look at things like a venture capitalist," said Anderson. "You can't give something a bunch of money and then tell them "good luck" the following year. You should invest in things three to seven years and see what happens. I'm very proud that Zions was one of the initial funders of the Sun Valley Film Festival. Look at it now. It's thriving. If we had cut our funding after the first year, it may not be here."
Jewel is a world famous actress and musician, but she's also an author. In May, we talked with the multi-talented Jewel about her tell-all autobiography Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story (Blue Rider Press, 2015).
"I see a lot of young people struggling, saying they're broken," said Jewel. "That's not the case. It's only a perception of being broken. It's a very difficult fire to walk through, but when you talk through it, you can be more empathetic and gracious."
Paul Stanley is also an author, penning the 2014 memoir, Face the Music: A Life Exposed (Harper One, 2014), but we know him better as Starchild, co-lead singer of KISS and co-writer of many of the band's best hits. Prior to a Boise tour stop in July, we talked to Stanley about 40 years in KISS and staying at the top of his game.
"A crappy band with a big show is still a crappy band," Stanley said. "We've seen enough of those. You've got to have the content. You can't last 40 years on a gimmick. You're only the new band on the scene just once and once that buzz dies, it's deafening. You may end up on the cover of Rolling Stone by putting a teapot on your head, but next year, you'll be serving fries."
Mariah Walton wasn't even born when KISS started pumping out Top 10 hits, but her advocacy has made her as ferocious as a rock star. She has been interviewed dozens of times—in April, she appeared on the Today Show and Good Morning America on the same day. She suffers from severe pulmonary hypertension, yet, because of her parents' fundamentalist Christian beliefs, she never had regular medical care. Today, she'll tell anyone who will listen Idaho needs to do a better job protecting children from parents who use their faith as a shield when accused of neglect.
"We keep telling legislators that we need help, but someone at the Legislature needs to step up," Walton said. "This is real life-and-death. A lot of people may say, 'Oh, any parent ought to be responsible for taking care of this, not the government,' but if a parent hasn't taken that responsibility, somebody needs to step up. Freedom of religion doesn't say that children should die. It doesn't say it in the Constitution, the Bible or the Book of Mormon."
Ken Morris travels the world as an advocate for children. The great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington, he spoke about the growing but underreported issue of contemporary slavery.
"Unless your family has been touched by, say, forced prostitution, it's hard to wrap our minds around that there are indeed humans evil enough to sell other humans," said Morris. "And a lot of people think that contemporary slavery is too big of a problem for one person to do anything about it. It's the child in West Africa, climbing trees to harvest your cocoa. It's the little girl in India doing needle work for the rugs we stand one. It's the boys swimming in disease-infested waters to harvest the fish that go into our markets. Of course, it's the children who are sold over and over again as sex slaves. Frederick Douglass said, 'It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men.'"
Our favorite conversation of 2016 revolved around children. Each August, in anticipation of a new school year, we usually sit down to talk to a new principal about their hopes for the coming months. This year, we chatted with Dr. Adria David and Valerie Uhlorn, both of whom were about to embark on new assignments as principals at elementary schools: at Lowell and Amity, respectively.
We like to ask educators about their journeys as young students, and sat transfixed as David talked about her difficult childhood. she said her mother fled Oregon with her and her siblings to "escape a pretty bad situation," and even when they returned to Oregon, the family remained in hiding.
"For a while, we were just trying to survive," David said. Early on, she said, a number of teachers dismissed her, telling her she wouldn't amount to much.
"That will always stick with me," she said.
David said teachers at Eastern Oregon State opened her eyes to "a whole new world," leading her to a path that she followed to a Ph.D., a job at the Idaho State Department of Education and, ultimately, to becoming a principal.
"Your story is amazing, Adria," said Uhlorn, tears in her eyes.
"Everybody has a story," said David.
She's right, and we can't wait to listen to more of them in 2017.