ccording to conventional wisdom, Amarillo’s greatest export isn’t petroleum or cattle but talent. From T. Boone Pickens to astronaut Rick Husband, local history is filled with tales of individuals who grew up here or began careers here only to find success after leaving. Some of those Amarillo expats retained local ties. Others haven’t.

There’s no harm in lamenting the departure of our best and brightest, and ongoing local discussions seek ways to retain local talent. But it’s also worth celebrating the successes of past residents and the roles Amarillo plays in their stories. Places matter. Communities have consequence. There’s no denying that one’s environment, good or bad, can directly influence the trajectory of a life. 

With that in mind, we decided to check in with a few former locals. Where are they now? What are they doing? And what impact did this area have on their careers?

Jonathan Baker

Brand Consultant, Podcaster and Writer

Known to most of his Amarillo/Canyon friends as “Baker,” this writer and creative has lived in New York, Chicago, Nashville and Austin—and currently resides in Maine—but calls the Texas Panhandle home. “I always find myself returning to the epic flat emptiness of the Texas Panhandle,” he says. “The big skies and all that space and visibility really sink into your soul.”

Baker grew up in Canyon and attended Reeves-Hinger Elementary School as well as St. Andrew’s Episcopal School before finishing high school in Austin. After studying at Amarillo College, he earned an English degree at West Texas A&M University, followed by a master’s at the University of Chicago.

Today, Baker owns two companies related to brand consultation and copywriting. “I help companies ‘find their voice’ by employing creativity and honesty,” he says. “I have a small stable of freelancers who can provide everything from web development to graphic design to illustration and, of course, copywriting. Much of what I do might be described as storytelling.”

Those clients include Still Austin Whiskey Co., which enlisted Baker’s services early in the life of the brand. Baker helped Still Austin break out of the traditional brown-and-tan whiskey marketing scheme—always aimed at a male audience—branding the company’s straight bourbon and gin with more artistic names and labels. “Why don’t we create a whiskey for the oddballs, the dreamers, the artists? Who says we can’t put an artistic woman on a whiskey label?” he asks. “I’m proud of my part in helping to launch what has become the fastest-growing whiskey in Texas.”

Lately, Baker—who spent several years working in the New York publishing world—has also created The Long Shadow, a podcast in which writers discuss America’s great crime films, like Taxi Driver or No Country for Old Men. He and his co-host, the former NYPD detective Jason Allison, launched the podcast this fall. 

“The influence of the High Plains infuses almost everything I do, creatively,” Baker says today. “No matter where I go, I can still feel the wind blowing inside me.”

Cy Carter

Actor, Screenwriter and Designer

Longtime Amarillo residents may remember Cy Carter from Tascosa High School (class of 1994) or the Amarillo College Theater School for Children (ACTS), where he studied with Linda Hughes. Or from the Amarillo Country Club, where he lifeguarded during the summers. But outside this region, Carter gets recognized as an actor, screenwriter and one of the principals of the acclaimed Carter Design, a boutique interior design studio he founded with his wife, Genevieve.

Carter attended Rhodes College in Tennessee on a theater arts scholarship, then studied acting at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. From there he booked television and film roles, culminating in the indie film A Quiet Little Marriage, which he wrote and starred in with Mary Elizabeth Ellis and Charlie Day, directed by Mo Perkins. It won the Austin Film Festival and Slamdance Film Festival in 2009.

But in the process, Carter had also gained an interest in set design, supplementing his income with gigs in local antique shops. “Working with furniture and design was a skill I had picked up from my parents and grandparents. We all have an unhealthy addiction to reviving old things and making good spaces,” he says. 

In 2009, he and Genevieve—a painter who comes from a long line of architects and artists—opened Carter Design. With clients from Beverly Hills to the Hamptons, their work appears in publications like Vogue, Domino, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and House Beautiful. “I like bringing out the story of a space and the people in it, so that both operate at a frequency they have never felt before. I like doing the same thing in acting and writing—getting the parts of a story working together to produce a new emotion, or combination of emotions people have not previously had,” he says. Right before the pandemic, the couple returned to the Panhandle to design the lobby of the XIT Museum in Dalhart. 

Amarillo remains central to his own story. “I carry the land and the sky in my heart. The wide-open space, big-hearted people, and dry wit have contributed to my worldview. The Wild-West themes that play through the hum of the Panhandle very much inform the way I look at creative projects,” Carter says. “Amarillo is a fascinating place in the access and support available to the arts while staring off into the wild blue yonder.” 

Mandi Collier

Amazon Music Executive

Canyon native Mandi Collier oversees music for around 40 Prime Video television series as a music executive at Amazon Studios in Los Angeles. She graduated from Canyon High School in 2003. “Because Canyon is small, I was able to explore many different interests and activities, especially where music was concerned,” she says. “As a child, I learned piano and music theory from Janice Bowen and the saxophone from Don Lefevre.” 

Collier went on to attend the University of Oklahoma, where she majored in Letters and minored in French, including a study-abroad program in Bordeaux, France. Eventually she co-founded Whirly Girl Music, based in Los Angeles, coordinating music for film and television. During those years, she worked as music supervisor for the musical drama Nashville as well as The Ranch (Netflix) and The Looming Tower (Hulu). 

In her role at Amazon, Collier works with producers and executives to create the music budget and oversee the hiring process for key music partners, including composers and music supervisors for each production. “I really love discovering and hiring new, underrepresented composers for our projects. There are so many talented, up-and-coming composers and artists in the industry, and it’s extremely rewarding to support them throughout their path,” Collier says. “Being on the studio side also allows me to have visibility on every part of the production process, from greenlight to launch, which I find fascinating.”

Recently, her work has included serving as music executive for the new series Fairfax and the hit docuseries LulaRich. “I’m also currently overseeing all things music for the upcoming reboot of A League of Their Own and the musical drama Daisy Jones & the Six,” which is based on the acclaimed novel.

Collier says she thinks of her hometown every day. “The most significant mentors in my life, most notably my mom [Debbie Collier], were those who reminded me that there was a world outside the Panhandle,” she says. “I may live in Los Angeles now, but not a day goes by that I don’t remember the many Panhandle lessons—and those who taught them to me—that I learned along the way.”

Maddy Cunningham

Network News Producer

Based in New York City, Maddy Cunningham is an associate producer with 20/20, the long-running ABC News magazine show that airs every Friday night. This Randall High School grad (class of 2012) has served in this role since 2017. Her interest in journalism was kindled during her tenure with Randall’s Silver Streak newspaper, along with high school internships at KFDA-TV NewsChannel 10 and Amarillo Magazine. Cunningham went on to earn a double major in multimedia journalism and theater at Oklahoma
State University.

“I’m involved in just about all aspects of producing one of our shows,” she says today from the ABC News headquarters. That includes pitching stories and scouting locations, researching and connecting with local personalities, and managing production of televised segments—most of which are true crime documentaries or investigative reports. “The work we do is expansive and requires us to be quick studies on whatever we’re covering.”

Recently, that work landed her on legendary journalist Diane Sawyer’s team, producing a 20th anniversary special about 9/11. The special reunited widows and children of victims of the attack who had spoken to ABC News over the years. “I don’t know how to fully articulate just how bonkers and emotional the entire process was,” Cunningham says. “It was unlike any TV experience I’ve had to date.”

She and others on the ABC News team recently won a Gracie Award for a Hulu documentary about the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol in 2021. “It was the most difficult and rewarding project I’ve ever been part of. Most of our team didn’t sleep for 72 hours because we had to turn the program around so quickly,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow. This program feels so important. I can’t believe I’m getting the opportunity to work with these incredible, seasoned journalists.’”

Cunningham says her Randall High teacher, Amy Neese, first sparked her interest in journalism, as did a 2011-2012 internship working with Brick & Elm founder Michele McAffrey, during which she learned to film and edit online videos for Amarillo Magazine. “[Michele] pushed me and taught me more than I could have ever imagined during that year,” she says. “From that point on, I knew I had found what I was supposed to be doing and dove head first into learning everything I could.”

Kalani Gordon

Pulitzer-Winning Journalist

Born and raised in Amarillo and a 2009 graduate of Canyon High School, Gordon went on to earn a degree in news journalism from the University of North Texas in 2012. In the summer of 2011, she returned to Amarillo to work as an editorial intern with our own Michele McAffrey. Gordon eventually landed at The Baltimore Sun in Baltimore, Maryland, where today she serves as the Director of Analytics and Audience.

In 2016, Gordon was part of the local journalism team that became a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Sun’s reporting on the riots following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died from injuries suffered in police custody. The same staff won the Pulitzer in 2020 after uncovering a children’s book-publishing scheme that led to the resignation of Baltimore’s then-mayor, Catherine Pugh, and contributed to her federal conviction on fraud and other charges. 

Today, Gordon remains the youngest woman and youngest staffer overall to be on the masthead of newsroom leadership in the venerable 184-year history of The Sun. “I was raised within a community of strong, resilient, and creative thinkers, who wanted better for their community, dared to think outside the box, and didn’t mind pushing boundaries of what was normal,” she says of her days in the Panhandle. “Those people have always influenced me to not be afraid to try new things, to not settle for what they know to be true, and, most importantly, to be curious and ask questions.”

She believes asking those questions becomes incredibly important while working for a city newspaper. “I love working in local journalism, and being able to see first-hand how our staff’s reporting impacts the residents of the community, decisions public officials and lawmakers make, and overall helps Marylanders be able to live more informed lives within their community,” says Gordon.

Grady Hillhouse

Engineer and YouTube Personality

A native of Panhandle, Texas, Grady Hillhouse graduated as the valedictorian of Panhandle High School’s class of 2006. He attended Amarillo College for a year before heading off to Texas State University in San Marcos, where he earned a geography degree. Hillhouse followed that up with a Master of Civil Engineering from Texas A&M University. 

Starting in 2012, he worked as an engineer and project manager for an infrastructure consulting firm in San Antonio. During that time, however, he began posting short, educational engineering videos to YouTube. His channel, Practical Engineering, quickly grew to nearly 2.5 million subscribers and 8 million views monthly. It’s become one of the largest engineering channels on the platform. Hillhouse has now taken, in his words, “an indefinite sabbatical” from engineering in order to continue producing two videos a month for his YouTube channel, while managing related side projects.

“It involves wearing a whole lot of hats, including writer, producer, host and editor,” he says. “I reached a crossroads where I would have to either give up on the channel as a hobby or find a way to make it into a full-time job.” Though he now misses the practice of engineering, Hillhouse says he realized he could have more impact on the world through his videos, and made the leap. “It is quite rewarding to take complex topics in engineering and make them fun and approachable for everyone.” 

One of his most popular recent videos, for instance, explained the engineering side of what may have happened when the Ever Given cargo ship blocked the Suez Canal for six days in July 2021, disrupting global trade. Hillhouse’s 11-minute video has 3.5 million views. 

Though he lives in San Antonio now, Hillhouse retains a soft spot for this area. “The Texas Panhandle is a special place with great people and beautiful country. There is also plenty of hard work to go around,” he says. “I still get back regularly to visit, and I’m always glad to see what’s new in Amarillo.”

Dr. Courtney Lane

Research Scientist and Consultant

Amarillo native Courtney Lane graduated from Tascosa High School in 1992. As valedictorian of her class, she narrowly beat out Holly Ridings (next page). Lane went on to earn a degree in electrical and computer engineering from Rice University, followed by a PhD in health sciences and technology in a joint program between Harvard Medical School and MIT. “For my thesis, I studied how the brain processes sounds in noisy environments,” she says. Lane followed this with post-doctoral research at Rice, studying how to optimize hearing aids.

She then spent several years working for the medical device company Boston Scientific as a research scientist and clinical research director, leading a team of scientists and writers on multiple studies. In 2013, Lane launched Anacapa Clinical Research to help medical device start-ups execute clinical trials for innovative new devices. “Many of these devices are designed to help patients with pain, Parkinson’s disease or urological issues,” she says. Working with CEOs and physicians, Lane helps write clinical study protocols and get those protocols approved by the FDA. 

“I love that I get to use science to directly help people,” Lane says. “As I work with patients in clinical studies, I get to see the results of our hard work first hand in the faces of smiling patients.”

Lane attributes her education in Amarillo’s public school system as a major factor in her early success. “When I got to Rice, I found myself well-prepared for my classes. The classes we took at Tascosa in calculus, physics and chemistry set me up to succeed in my engineering classes, but I am especially grateful for our English classes. I write all day long, and I recognize that our Amarillo education helped us all be better writers.”

Dr. Neena Marupudi

Pediatric Neurosurgeon

As of this month, Dr. Marupudi has become Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the acclaimed Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. Marupudi is the daughter of Dr. Sambasiva Marupudi, a colon and rectal surgeon who has been working in Amarillo for four decades. 

After graduating from Amarillo High in 2000, Neena attended Johns Hopkins University, graduating with honors in anthropology and neuroscience. She completed a master’s degree in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, followed by a medical degree from Pennsylvania State College of Medicine. After residency training at the Detroit Medical Center and a pediatric neurosurgery fellowship at Seattle Children’s Hospital, she returned to the Children’s Hospital of Michigan and joined the faculty of the Wayne State University School of Medicine. In 2019, Dr. Marupudi also completed a master’s degree program in clinical research design and statistical analysis at the University of Michigan, applying those skills to her research in pediatric spasticity, hydrocephalus, epilepsy, and brain tumors.

As a pediatric neurosurgeon, she helps diagnose and treat conditions including brain tumors, seizure disorders and head and spinal congenital deformities and injuries. “The world of neurosciences and neurosurgery is evolving at an unbelievable pace, with creative minds working to develop treatment for neurologic conditions. I get excited about bringing the cutting edge to children who need these treatments in our community,” Marupudi says. Meanwhile, over the past few years, she has partnered with colleagues to build a multidisciplinary spasticity clinic for patients with cerebral palsy at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

“Growing up in Amarillo, I felt that I was a part of a community that valued kindness and helping each other,” she says. Observing her father’s career, she saw the difference a caring physician can make in the lives of individuals and the larger community. “My time in Amarillo and my family have taught me the importance of compassion and empathy in my career, in addition to developing a long-term commitment to advancing the arts of medicine and surgery to support my community.”

Holly Ridings

NASA Chief Flight Director

Holly Ridings was always a high achiever during her tenure at Tascosa High School, and her most recent accomplishments aren’t even bound by gravity. The salutatorian of Tascosa’s Class of 1992 is now NASA’s first female chief flight director, leading the Mission Control Center of Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

Also a 1996 graduate of Texas A&M University, Ridings has been in this newsmaking leadership position since 2018. “I am responsible for the operations of NASA human spaceflight missions,” she explains. “We plan the missions, train the crew, keep them safe while they fly, and successfully complete the mission objectives.” That includes around-the-clock operations for the International Space Station. Previously, she had served as NASA flight director for the first SpaceX Dragon mission to the ISS in 2012, which ushered in a new era of commercial partnership for NASA. Right now, Ridings is helping plan the first Artemis mission—an uncrewed test flight representing the first in a series to return astronauts to the moon around 2024.

“Every day is different, exciting, an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to advance humanity,” says Ridings. She describes much of her work as problem-solving—though those problems are extremely technical and require a spectacular amount of teamwork and partnerships. “Each day, you go to work and focus on safely executing the mission, and it is incredibly rewarding to know that your work is meaningful to the nation and the world,” she says.

Even today, Ridings says her time in Amarillo helped launch her toward the stars. “Growing up in Amarillo taught me the value of family and community, a strong work ethic, and respect for the history and culture of a community,” she says. “I was supported by teachers, friends and family who believed in my dream of working at NASA and gave me the tools to achieve that dream.”

Logan Rogers

Nashville Music Executive

While a member of the Amarillo High School class of 1995, Logan Rogers found himself drawn to the Texas Music subgenre of country music, following the careers of state legends like Guy Clark, Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker. That propelled Rogers toward his own career in the music industry. He left his hometown for Belmont University in Nashville, where he earned a business degree with emphasis on the music business.

Since then, he’s been immersed in the industry, from serving as a talent scout to artist management. Several years ago, he founded Lightning Rod Records, a label based in Nashville. Under that label, Rogers has released albums by James McMurtry, Jason Isbell, Joe Pug, Amanda Shires, and Ryan Culwell. He’s even released albums by The Oak Ridge Boys, introducing those Country Music Hall of Fame legends to a new generation of fans. “I was also fortunate to work with Texas songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver for the last 20 years of his life. I’d compare that to being able to work with Hank Williams or Muddy Waters in their prime,” Rogers adds. Shaver died in late 2020 at the age of 81. 

Rogers also runs the marketing department for New West Records, a label that includes The Wallflowers, Justin Townes Earle and Lilly Hiatt, and which has allowed him to help publicize Grammy-nominated albums by Los Lobos and John Hiatt with The Jerry Douglas Band. 

“I love working with artists on their albums,” he says. “Albums are permanent records of their artistic achievement, and they have the power to change artists’ lives. I have been lucky to work on projects that have propelled musicians to new career heights.” Between the two labels, he’s worked on all aspects of album releases, from recording the music to selling it.

“The Texas Music scene has had a heavy influence on me and my career. My personal taste still leans toward Texas Music,” he says, and most of the artists on his label—like Texas Panhandle native Culwell—have
Texas connections.