There will be a lot of COVID-related content in this year's BEST Culture, because honestly, COVID cannot be extricated from our culture. We can't escape it. For a hot minute in early summer we thought we had, but here we are, still worrying about vaccinations, tests, quarantining, and masks. We are all learning to live and work and play in our community as we continue to navigate our way through it all. Good things are still happening, and here at Smile Politely we try our best to make sure you know about them. 

- Julie McClure, Culture Editor


BEST Month in 2021: June

A large glassy lake surrounding by hills covered in green trees. The sky is blue with white puffy clouds. Photo by Jessica Hammie. Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Ah, the halcyon days of June 2021. It was a time when the weather was mostly dry up until the end of the month, vaccination rates were going up, COVID cases were going down. This photo, for instance, is of no place in Illinois, and that is because it is not Illinois. I was on vacation, where I didn’t think about spreading or contracting COVID every single second of my time in the public. The Delta variant was not yet a problem in the United States. There was so much possibility. (JH)

BEST sports news: Kofi Cockburn returning for another season

The basketball court at State Farm Center. Several players are standing on the court, the closest player has orange shorts and jersey with the number 21 and Cockburn in white. People are filling the stands around the perimeter. Photo by Julie McClure.Photo by Julie McClure.

Even with all of it’s no-fan having COVID weirdness, 2020-2021 was going to be our year, especially with Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn returning for another year, rather than entering the draft. And it was a great year. Until it wasn’t. For a minute, it looked like we were going to lose both superstars to the draft this time around. Then, Cockburn withdrew and ultimately committed to returning for his junior year. Fans are back in the State Farm Center (though it would be great if those fans had to be vaccinated), and though we've had some ups and downs to begin the season, having Cockburn back offers some hope for another good run. (JM)

BEST wholesome content: Animal cams

A screenshot of four foxes running through a grassy area. Screenshot from CCFPD Facebook page.Screenshot from CCFPD Facebook page.

Allerton Park and the Champaign Forest Preserve District have animal cams set up in their respective natural areas, capturing the daily lives of wildlife that live there. The best was this one with baby foxes. Incredibly adorable and wholesome. (JM)

BEST idea for new U of I mascot: The Kingfisher 

A woven patch of a bird's head. It's blue and white with an orange border, and has a gray beak. Photo from Kingfisher Facebook page.Photo from Kingfisher Facebook page.

It’s no secret that we absolutely love The Kingfisher as a new mascot for the University of Illinois. Students and the U of I faculty senate like it, too. It’s the perfect animal to serve as a mascot: naturally blue and orange, native to the area, a predator, easy to adapt into a suit a human can wear. It’s long past time for the U of I to adopt a new mascot and finally cut ties with the lingering traces of the former racist one. Sure, the old white donors will be upset, but they still have their basements full of memorabilia, their memories, and, you know, their “traditions,” or whatever. But you know who will be shelling out money to support the U of I soon? Current students and their kids. Recent graduates. Time for the U of I to invest in the future and let go of the past. (JH)

BEST human, again: Julie Pryde

.A woman is wearing a purple strapless gown, long brown wig, mask with big red lips, and a rainbow sash that says Grand Marshal. She sits in a carriage pulled by a miniature horse. Crouching next to her a is a person in a blue t-shirt, rainbow suspenders, and rainbow mask. They are both wearing sunglasses. Photo from UP Center Facebook page.Photo from The UP Center Facebook page.

Last year this BEST category was a no-brainer. And to be honest, it was this year as well. Julie and her team at C-U Public Health District have continued to tirelessly try to get our community on the other side of this pandemic, with most of this year focused on the rollout of vaccines. She shakes off the haters and does her job. She wore an evening gown and wig as Grand Marshal of the Pride parade. She dressed up as a snail and posed for photos with kids getting their first COVID vaccines. We are lucky to have her leading the charge. (JM)

BEST contribution to the environment: MTD zero emission buses

A close up of the inner workings of a bus engine. There are steel tubes twisting around each other, and the engine is framed by four circular lights on either side. Photo by Julie McClure.Photo by Julie McClure.

In October, MTD unveiled their brand new zero emission buses. They are hydrogen fueled by an onsite solar powered production station, and emit only water vapor into the air. One bus reduces greenhouse gases up to 135 tons annually. They don’t solve all the world’s climate problems, but are definitely a prototype for what is possible. (JM)

BEST showing by local athletes: Tokyo 2021 paralympians 

Five athletes in matching white warm ups are posing for a picture. The four in front are in wheelchairs and holding up medals. One person stands behind them with a medal around his neck. Photo from Illinois Wheelchair basketball Facebook page. Photo from Illinois Wheelchair Basketball Facebook page.

Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois were very well represented at this year’s Paralympic Games. More than 20 local athletes competed, and many medals were won, in events ranging from wheelchair racing to sitting volleyball to canoe and more. Wheelchair racing and wheelchair basketball have a long history here, thanks to Tim Nugent, the “father of accessibility”, founding the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services. Nichole Millage, a Centennial grad, competed in her fourth paralympics in sitting volleyball and brought home her third gold. Find the full list of medal winners here. (JM)

BEST attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19: U of I vaccination requirement

The U of I quad: In the foreground is a grassy area with criss crossing concrete sidewalks. It's lined by leafy green trees. In the background is Foellinger Auditorium, a red brick building with gray stone columns and a green domed roof. Photo by Anna Longworth. Photo by Anna Longworth.

It was the only reasonable and responsible thing to do, frankly. Could you imagine what would have happened had 40,000 people returned to campus unvaccinated? Ooof. There are so many who are thankful for the hard work of the committees and advisors advocating for vaccine requirements and testing and masking protocols. (JH)

BEST events in 2021: The ones that required vaccination for entrance

Close up of a wrist with several paper wristbands: one is rainbow, one is red with PYGMALION in black letters, one is white and says Enjoy Responsibly in white, one is solid orange. Photo by Julie McClure.Photo by Julie McClure.

The last weekend of September, Pride Fest and Pygmalion were intermingling over in Urbana, and both required proof of vaccination for indoor events (PYG required for outdoor performances as well). It was a glorious weekend. It felt really good to be enjoying these important cultural events in person, and it felt safe. Krannert just announced they will be requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend performances. More venues need to be doing this. The few people it will piss off is little price to pay for creating a safer environment to enjoy live events. This is the way. (JM)

BEST business concept for the time we live in: Smashing things 

A metal baseball bat is smashing through a glass bottle, and shards of glass are spraying everywhere. Photo from Smash It CU Facebook page.Photo from Smash*It CU Facebook page.

Pay money to suit up in protective gear and smash things with a bat or sledgehammer? Brilliant. There are now two opportunities to let out your frustrations on breakable things in a safe environment: Smash*It CU and Rage Room Champaign. (JM)

BEST long overdue development: Shield testing for the community

A woman in an orange shirt with black gloves is putting vials in a plastic tub. Photo from Illini Union Facebook page.Photo from Illini Union Facebook page.

In the summer of 2020, just a few months after COVID appeared in our community, U of I students were beginning to utilize a saliva test developed by researchers at the University. The results could be produced in about five hours, and the test was instrumental in making a school year possible for students. Out here in the community we longed for access to such a test. Finally, a year later, the test opened up to anyone over 8 years old. Now you can also access SHIELD testing at Parkland and the Stephens Family YMCA, and anyone 5 and over is eligible. With results back in less than 24 hours, it’s a game changer. (JM)

BEST column: Year of the Park

Aerial view of a park. A wide area of green spaces is framed by mature green trees. Blue tennis courts and a park shelter are on the left side, and there are buildings in the distance. Image by Tim Bailey.Top image by Tim Bailey. 

Okay, so I'm navel-gazing a little here, but this journalistic endeavor by publisher Seth Fein is worth some recognition. The idea was conceived pre-pandemic, but executed throughout the pandemic — a time when outdoor spaces became more crucial than ever.

It's an informative and comprehensive look at the green spaces under the stewardship of Champaign Park District, Urbana Park District, Village of Savoy, and Champaign County Forest Preserve District. It's a celebration of the good, and a critical look at the not-so-good, with a little snark and maybe more information about Seth than you really needed to know. If you haven't read the full series, please do. You'll come away with an appreciation of what we have, and hopefully a drive to want more for our community. (JM)

Jessica Hammie and Julie McClure contributed to this article.

Top image by Patrick Singer.