In the “old days” of the web, occasionally you would come across a subject that hadn’t been covered before and if you wrote about it, you could quickly become authoritative on the subject. There was an altruism to the whole endeavor as sometimes you were surfacing history that was not broadly known. See this old Metafilter post from 2005 about the ruins of the Belgum Sanitarium in the Berkeley hills, for which I briefly became an “authority” for doing nothing but taking photos and writing about it. It’s with a similar spirit that I want to do my part in recording for posterity the life of Evelyn McNeill, who I was thinking about today. Evelyn’s legacy is meaningful to me and many others.
Evelyn McNeill was a friend of mine who passed away at age 86 on July 20, 2016. Just before her death, she wrote a book about her incredible life: Zero to Eighty Over Unpaved Roads: A Memoir. I was honored that she asked me to write the foreword (pasted below this post) in August 2013.
Evelyn was a neighbor who was a customer of my and my brother’s lawn-mowing business when we were kids (in the Acknowledgements of her book, she wrote: “I am proud to see how far he has gone since the years he mowed my lawn!”) She was the first female faculty member at the East Carolina University School of Medicine (where she taught Neuroanatomy) and in the late 1970s filed a complaint against the school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when she found that she was being paid less than men with equal responsibilities. She won that case in a time when such cases were nearly unheard of (this episode and all of its complexity is covered over 10 full pages in her book). Evelyn was a patriotic feminist who served in the Army and later in the Army Reserves over the course of 36 years. When she retired in 1989 as a colonel, she was awarded the Legion of Merit, an award commissioned by the President and given for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” Evelyn lived a life of service, always loving and dutiful in the way she conducted herself but never afraid to be tough and speak up for herself.
When I sent her the draft of my foreword, she told me that what I wrote was “overly generous.” It really wasn’t if you knew her. I was fortunate to reconnect with her in the years before she passed. I came to my hometown of Greenville, NC in 2014 to speak to her Rotary Club (that’s me posing with her as she holds a copy of her book). When I was asked to speak at the Duke Fuqua Distinguished Speaker Series in March 2013 (YouTube), she was in the audience (she had gotten her Masters at Duke) and we had dinner afterwards.
Evelyn McNeill was a remarkable woman. I’ve never met anyone quite like her. I’m posting this in hopes that the fullness of Evelyn’s life and impact lives on the web for a very long time. I’ve pasted the foreword I wrote for her book below along with some links. I’ll close with the words that close the Introduction to her book:
. . . that journey has carried me where I never thought I could go. I have peered into places of hurt, sadness, and even bitterness that arose along the way. But this exercise in looking back has allowed those few inevitable elements to fall away and lifted me closer than ever to that concept of Christ-like love that surpasses all understanding.
So in these pages, my nieces will indeed find an aunt who lost love, but found it again and again; and one who felt the void of not having children of her own, but never grieved over it. In the happy faces of my siblings’ children and grandchildren, after all, I can see my mother and father and the legacy of love they left behind.
If there’s a common theme that can be attached to the pages of this book, let it be found in two words so often attached to the bumpers of cars driven by Christians these days:
- Audio interview on WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio (October 2013 -she had such a beautiful voice and lovely way of talking. I’m glad it is captured here and in the video below.)
- Video interview about her book for UNC-TV (January 2014 – her interview starts at 21:45)
- Evelyn McNeill papers (housed in the library at East Carolina University)
Foreword from Evelyn’s book, Zero to Eighty Over Unpaved Roads: A Memoir
When I was a young boy in the early to mid-1980s, I lived in Greenville, N.C. My brother and I had a relative lawn-mowing empire for two boys: about twenty-five lawns in total. One of our most loyal customers was Evelyn McNeill, whose home was just two doors down from our own. Of all the people we served, I enjoyed working at Evelyn’s house the most. While many of our customers strived to keep their lawns simply neat during the warm months, what I could only call a landscape around her property transcended the very idea of a “lawn” in its beauty, aesthetic taste, and attention to detail. As a young boy curious about the world, I marveled at her vast array of carefully labeled plants along the well-tended paths in her wooded garden. The woods now contain a custom-built tree house, a playful touch that a boy like me could really appreciate. An adult with a tree house! It illustrated the exquisite taste, care, and joie de vivre that Evelyn demonstrated to me in everything she did, from her research to her gardening to caring for her dear mother.
Evelyn was the first Ph.D. I ever met in my life. In fact, until I went off to college, when I heard someone say “Ph.D.,” my mental image was of Evelyn. Her beautiful study with all the signs of rigorous intellectual thought inspired me as a young boy to always be engaged in the world of ideas and the joys of living a life of the mind. Her unbridled curiosity about everything from architecture to horticulture to medicine to art inspired me to be a well-rounded person and a citizen of the larger world.
I will always recall with fondness Evelyn’s gift to me for high school graduation: a set of luggage. Although at that point I had never even flown on a plane, I understood the gift as a subtle suggestion to go see the world, learn new things, and meet new people. Since then, I’ve developed a love for travel and learning about new cultures around the world, and it started with that generous and inspired gift.
Evelyn is a remarkable and dare I say iconoclastic woman. I spent ten years in Berkeley, California, where iconoclasts are a dime a dozen. I learned there that the true iconoclasts among us are the ones who quietly challenge convention in ways that don’t attract newspaper headlines, as Evelyn has done in her life and work. Evelyn is a humble iconoclast, a woman who pursued a career without family or children of her own, but always showed the love of a mother toward the children of her extended family and kids like me, who she inspired with her sharp mind and boundless generosity.
This is the story of her life and the people she has touched and shaped along the way. I am incredibly lucky to count myself among them.
August 2013 / Brooklyn, NY