Earlier this month, I fielded a "whatever happened to?" query from an economics teacher curious about an eminent-domain case I wrote about four years ago.
I get requests like that all the time. News seems fleeting when it's flying by on Twitter, but if my in-box tells me anything, it's that great stories leave lasting impressions.
So this Sunday and Wednesday, let's pause to catch up on people and issues in 2010 that grabbed - and, I hope, held - your attention.
Surely you remember Gene Epstein, the Bucks County millionaire who dreamed up a plan to jump-start the economy: He'd donate $1,000 to charity for every small business that hired a new employee.
Economists scoffed, but Epstein dug deep, certain that each hire would ease the strain on the unemployment system and boost retail spending. The retired businessman pledged $250,000 to entice 250 skittish employers.
In September, Epstein launched www.hirejustone.org, and by December, more than 600 companies had signed on - with many hiring more than just one employee.
Even more encouraging? Business owners still take Epstein's challenge even after he tells them he has reached his charitable limit.
"These companies had trimmed down to their peak efficiency, where the only way to grow is to invest in another employee," he tells me. "They got the message, which is that they hold the key to their own success."
A tireless promoter, Epstein gave dozens of interviews to promote his personal stimulus plan.
"Katie Couric is the sweetest person," he gushes. "When she said I showed the true spirit of America, that was a thrill."
A bigger thrill? Meeting grateful workers at places such as Chant Engineering, in New Britain.
"We were hugging, and I was crying. They were thanking me. I was thanking them. The greatest pleasure anyone could have is knowing that people - whether one or 100,000 - get jobs because of this."
Rasa Vella remains the only full-time employee of her company, DeTours. But I'm pleased to share that the plucky entrepreneur is still paying the rent at her office in Old City, no small feat in this economy.
DeTours offers biking, jogging, and Segway tours of Philadelphia. But the super-small business (www.detourstouring.com) almost succumbed to bureaucracy when the city billed Vella $5,600 for the privilege of traveling along the sidewalk in Fairmount Park.
"I'm not basing my business in the park," she argued in August. "I'm just passing through."
By late fall, DeTours had generated enough buzz to run 12 tours a week. Satisfied customers left rave reviews on travel websites.
The best news? Last month, City Hall slashed her user fee to $500.
"Winter will be tough, but to date we have broken even," Vella reports. "So far, so good."
Investing in her future
When Jalesaa Figueroa dons a cap and gown this spring, she'll have nearly 100 strangers to thank.
The impoverished North Philadelphia student resolved to graduate from Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls even if it meant throwing her own educational fund-raisers. Like the stars of the education-reform documentary Waiting for "Superman," she wanted more than the dangerous, failing neighborhood school could offer.
"Worldly stuff we don't need," preached her disabled grandmother, Damaris Martinez, who risked losing their rowhouse to keep Figueroa in Catholic school. "Education we cannot live without."
Inquirer readers moved by Figueroa's spirit sent more than $10,000 to her student account, covering her tuition, yearbook, and class ring. One boutique owner even promised to dress Figueroa for the prom.
Once her bills were covered, Little Flower's principal forwarded $6,000 to an educational trust fund Figueroa may tap for college.
The young woman who shared the nightmare of being tormented about her weight remains overwhelmed by the outpouring. Most donors sought anonymity, but with help from her principal, Figueroa sent them all thank-you notes.
"I never thought something so small would turn into something so big," she tells me. "And I'm relieved that some of the pressure has been lifted off my grandmom."
It's a zoo out there
Speaking of pressure, Philadelphia Zoo vice president Kenneth Woodson feels it the moment warm weather entices families outside, since minivan jams heading to America's first zoo can stretch across state lines.
"Zoo Traffic" is so notorious it has its own shorthand on KYW radio. The day after Easter, state troopers took the unusual step of closing the Girard Avenue exit ramps on both sides of the Schuylkill Expressway just to thin the herds.
My April column about the joyless journey drew wails from equally peeved parents. When I caught up with Woodson this month, he swore relief was en route.
In early 2011, the zoo will solicit architectural and engineering bids for traffic and signal upgrades designed to move cars more quickly off the expressway and into parking lots. The $9 million project will be funded in large part by a $7 million federal transportation grant already in hand.
Alas, talk of a monster parking garage remains just that, for now.
"We're hoping to tackle the most complicated things first," Woodson says, not that the solution will move much faster than all those idling SUVs. Even if road crews start reconfiguring exit ramps and traffic lights a year from now, the work won't be finished until late 2012 at the earliest.
No place to play
In July, I wrote about an arsonist torching the playground at Liney Ditch Park in Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood.
The playground had received a $110,000 makeover just a few months before a fiend lit a match and turned a slide into plastic taffy.
Police have no leads, and city officials say there's no plan or money to rebuild. I'm not surprised. Camden is so broke it will soon lay off cops and firefighters.
Why end with despair? Because it's still out there.
For every kind soul who gave $25 to Jalesaa Figueroa's education and every employer who believed in Gene Epstein's dream, there's a Camden bureaucrat who wants to give kids a playground, but can't.