Tragic conclusion to an otherwise stellar year

The murder of 20 children and seven adults in Connecticut brings 2012 to a shocking and sad end.

Perhaps a few uplifting stories will dominate the year's waning days, providing a holiday boost. And we should remember the inspiring sub-stories from Newtown, like the heroics of 27-year-old teacher Victoria Soto, who sacrificed her life to save her students.

Although the nation's grief is still raw, the Connecticut tragedy obscures the fact that 2012 was a good year in many ways. Baltimore and Maryland, in particular, had ample reasons to be proud and grateful.

Nationally, the first quarter brought strong economic growth, new hires and a surging stock market. Unemployment fell below 8 percent, homebuilder confidence is now at a six-year high, and gas prices are presently at a two-year low.

The economy has not fully recovered from recession, and many Americans are still hurting: upside-down on their homes, drained of savings, struggling with credit debt. But 2012 could be remembered as the year America turned the financial corner.

President Barack Obama needed every bit of this steady recovery to win a second term. His approval numbers, overall and on the economy, were abysmal in autumn 2011 following the (first?) ugly debt ceiling showdown; had he stood for election then, he probably would have lost.

But the president — despite a horrific Denver debate performance — had a strong 2012. He showed the guts to support same-sex marriage and stood firm against the tea party's harsh attacks. His "rising electorate" coalition of younger, female, unmarried, less affluent and nonwhite voters proved sufficient to re-elect him.

Speaking of gay rights, despite significant opposition from key religious leaders, Maryland joined the small but growing number of states to legalize same-sex marriage. Gov. Martin O'Malley emerged as a national leader on the issue. And whatever one thinks of legalized gambling, expanding it Maryland will reclaim revenues for Annapolis currently being lost to neighboring states.

This summer, we learned that violent crime and property crime rates in Maryland dipped to record lows since the FBI began keeping statistics in 1975 (despite a troubling uptick in homicides this year in Baltimore). Maryland students' performance on national education tests have improved more during the past 20 years than in any other state, and for the fourth year in a row Maryland schools ranked first nationally.

Not too shabby.

The Orioles and the Nationals had very good years; both made the playoffs and were just a few outs away from advancing to their respective league championships. The Ravens should have beaten the dastardly New England Patriots in last year's January AFC championship game, and the Redskins have a chance to join the Ravens as division winners at the end of the current season. In May, the Capitals were seven seconds away from beating the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden — a win that likely would have vaulted them into the NHL's Eastern Conference finals for the first time in over a decade. And Baltimorean Michael Phelps won six more medals at the London Olympics, four of them gold, raising his total to 22 and making him the most decorated Olympian ever.

Other Marylanders also enjoyed noteworthy years.

Because it never hurts to praise one's boss, I should mention that UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski had another good year. Named one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People," he also won a Heinz award for humanitarian service and was appointed by President Obama to the new Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Hometown girl Julie Bowen, who plays Claire Dunphy on ABC's popular sitcom "Modern Family," won a Screen Actors Guild award for comedy show ensemble cast and was nominated for best female performance. Greg Merson, a 24-year-old poker pro from Laurel, beat out 6,597 other entrants to win the World Series of Poker's main event and claim the record $8.5 million prize.

The tragedy of Newtown haunts us still, as do the more than 200 killed on Baltimore's streets this year. But at this time of year, it is good to remember that all is not lost — there is much to celebrate as well. Happy holidays to you and yours.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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