Eulogies are easier to write when they’re about people you’ve met only once or twice. A limited perspective focuses the mind, challenges you to find out what you can discern from that glimpse. With someone you’ve seen and talked to at least weekly for half a century, it’s a good deal harder. It may be especially difficult in the case of my dad.
I won’t pretend to assess my perspective on his life on half a newspaper page. I could write a book about John Neely, and then I would call it back from the printer to add something else. I would never finish it. What follows are just a few ways of looking at him.
Consider, on the one hand, a man who loved to hunt and fish, who drove an old Ram Charger pickup with a gun rack, who knew mountain streams, could describe their eccentricities as if they were people. One who loved bluegrass and barbecue and beer, and who had a basement full of power tools and who preferred to do most home repair, even electrical and plumbing work, by himself. One who followed college football closely enough to hold his own in any barbershop debate.
Then picture a man who wore tweeds and drank only English breakfast tea in the morning, with oatmeal, and on special occasions, kippered herring. Who loved live drama and never missed a symphony or opera, who could discuss Greek mythology and British and Irish history, who had read all of Thomas Hardy and Dashiell Hammett, all of David McCullough and Barbara Tuchman, all of C.S. Forester and Graham Greene, and still nurtured ambitions of tackling Proust.
The gun rack in his pickup occasionally supported an actual gun, but more often held a tightly furled black umbrella.
Dad contained multitudes. On rainy Saturday afternoons, he worked with power tools in his basement as he listened to the opera on public radio. He favored Wagner, but also liked the Italians, and could discuss, as he selected another bit for the drill press, Parsifal or Rodolfo’s dilemmas. I grew up assuming that was normal.
In his retirement, he escorted his wife of 55 years to Europe and Africa and Central America. They saw the Passion Play at Oberammergau. They also explored Darwin’s Galopagos Islands.
He might have seemed created expressly to abolish popular prejudices about the souls of engineers. That was how he once made his living, as an engineer specializing in industrial processes, working daily to help manage a factory that manufactured chemicals and plastics. He preferred to talk about other things.
He was not a demonstrative man, but he cared about people he knew, and people he didn’t know. He volunteered to build homes for people who didn’t have them, and deliver food to people who had a hard time coming by it otherwise. On committees he had a reputation as a listener handy with a surprisingly agreeable compromise.
He was also, you may not have gathered already, an accomplished scuba diver. He could ski, and he could fly an airplane, when he found it necessary. He could do most of the things, in fact, that any international superspy can do.
He did all these things until he encountered a rare disease called corticobasal degeneration, which over a period of several years took away his ability to drive, to read, to walk, and finally to speak. The disease has no known cause or cure, not even any proven treatment. We congratulate ourselves on the advances of modern medical science, but in the face of several serious neurological diseases, we are still cavemen.
Dad was philosophical about it. He had enjoyed 70 years in near-perfect health, which if we’re realistic, even in the 21st century, is better than what most American men should expect. He felt life dealt him a fair hand, altogether. He approached his disease as a problem he wanted to help solve for people of the future, people he didn’t know. He was a solver of problems, and approached each one with a faith that it did have a solution.
Over the years Dad tried to teach me lots of things: how to identify constellations, deciduous trees, old airplanes at 10,000 feet, Greek deities. He tried to teach me how to tune up my car, how to tie a dry fly, how to clean a dove, how to start a chainsaw. I must have been a frustrating student. I never got very good at any of those things.
One lesson that stuck with me was that life isn’t necessarily circumscribed, and we have no obligation to follow somebody else’s guidelines about consistency. You can recite Coleridge, you can quote Horace, and you can also fix the damn sink.
Dad was an ardent citizen, and voted in every election. He studied issues, and therefore was never much impressed by anybody’s rhetoric. In his worldview, country deserved loyalty. Political parties did not. “Conservative” and “liberal” were equally simpleminded conventions, and Dad had no use for them. Problems had solutions, and it was the American’s job to find them.
In 1968, he took me to see both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey when they gave campaign speeches in Knoxville. Neither was a hero to him, and I could hardly guess who he voted for that year. He thought it was important for me to see them in person, and hear what they said. Over the years, I learned how he felt about the urgency of sustaining the natural environment. He had us recycling newspapers 40 years ago. I knew what he thought about some foreign policies, and some economic theories. But if I were to try to guess who he picked for president since 1968, I’d feel lucky if I got 50 percent right.
In a political landscape that defines loyalty by predictability, by redundancy, Dad was an outlier. He thought for himself.
His successful life, I think, suggests it’s a good way to be. And that maybe he doesn’t have to be the last one.