Eulogy for Dean McNeely

    1/1/1921 - 7/21/2012

Dean McNeelyIn 1944, Dean Brooks McNeely was one of the millions who chose to put his life on hold and at risk by leaving for Europe with the largest military force ever mobilized before or since, and among whom he would share ultimate triumph at no lesser a cause than the salvation of the Western world.

Whatever Dean learned during the time of hasty training before he and his fellow recruits were plunged into the jaws of death, and in the months of struggle, heroism, and sacrifice that followed, he emerged with at least one skill of war to which all of his grandchildren can attest: an aptitude for taking prisoners.

Grandpa was a talker. And once he had you in a seated position, whether you liked it or not, you were a listener. He was a man of a million stories, not one of which was short. Even those that lacked girth at their core were more than embellished by verbal footnotes that had to be explained, technical details that needed background, and digressions that spilled into stories of their own.

Family gatherings were an exercise in the art of making graceful entries and exits into and out of grandpa's orbit. There was a tacit, shared understanding to never leave any one person at his mercy for too long. We were all on the same team, and each member had developed a finely-honed recognition for when it was time to take our turn in the hot seat. If any of the grandchildren were caught not contributing their share, an adult would be along shortly with a familiar command that we all understood: "Go talk to grandpa."

What none of us were able to see when we were younger, but that every one of us grew to appreciate with age, is that all of his talking really was about something—a life of myriad experience, and a deep, voluminous intelligence.

Dean and Vernon McNeelyDean was born on January 1st, 1921 in Delaware, Oklahoma, growing up in nearby Nowata. His father Willie was a teamster in the original sense of the word (maintaining a team of horses for hire). His brothers were drawn to carpentry and farming. But Dean wasn't interested in following such old-fashioned footsteps. No, he was a man of the future, far too excited by what the ongoing revolution in technology had to offer, and what he had to offer it.

Dean had a ravenous curiosity and preternatural affinity for electronics and machines, which led him to nearby Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where he opened a radio repair shop. It was during this period that he met Aletha Wells. They had already decided to marry when war came calling, and their life together would have to wait.

Dean McNeely, Longwy, France, 12/25/1944Dean enlisted in the army the day after Pearl Harbor, and following boot camp, was sent to technical school for training. He arrived on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day + 3 and served as a radioman through the end of the war, moving with, and at times ahead of, the front lines on many of the major battlefields, including the critical Ardennes Counter-offensive of winter 1944.

Dean McNeely and ?, Aubange, Belgium, 11/1944Dean told fascinating and often hilarious tales of his time in the military—one favorite involved a mishap with French wine and hard cider—but he held onto many stories until later in life, and only told the ones in which he could create light and humor.

Returning home from Europe in July of 1945, Dean reunited with Aletha, who had waited patiently for him throughout his service. They married on December 1st of that year, and the couple had their first child in June of 1947. Four more would follow through 1953, during which the family moved from place to place until finally settling in Fresno.

There, Dean spent many years at KMJ TV as chief engineer, and was involved with pioneering, industry-defining work in television. But he remained at least as enthusiastic about radio, and successfully proselytized many young people into that hobby, including son Ray, daughter Jane, a number of their high school friends, and many years later, a few grandchildren.

On the list of the things that Dean lived to repair and/or take apart—which included radios, TV's, cars, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers—clocks had a special place. He had a most impressive collection. He loved them, and the time that they measured. Time is a precious commodity to a man with intense interest in many things (particularly things of a technical nature) and Dean sacrificed a great deal of it to the one commodity that he considered more precious: his family.

Dean, Ray, and Jane McNeely

He had a pilot's license whose potential he was only able to taste, dreamed of deep sea fishing, travel, and adventure, all of which a mind as brilliant as his would have been able to drink from deeply, had he the opportunity. But with a very full house and a busy, challenging career, Dean kept his priorities at home.

In 1969, Dean and Aletha moved from Fresno into what had once been their summer home in Lompico, California. A few brief work-related stints brought them out to the midwest again, until they finally returned to Lompico at the end of the 1970s.

In 1985, only six months into Dean's retirement, Aletha was stricken with cancer. Alas, the couple would spend their golden years together locked in battle with her disease. They moved to Lodi in 1988 to be close to UC Davis for her medical care, the silver lining being that they were now close to the delta, and could more easily enjoy a developing passion for boating on their proud vessel, Rainbow's End.

Dean and Aletha fought for her life for six years, both giving everything they had, until she finally succumbed in 1991. Now a widower, Dean found solace in friends, family, and in tending to his always-thirsty intellect.

Aletha Wells McNeely, 1923-1991

Ever the social butterfly, and encouraged to return to dancing, it wasn't long before he met Joy Russum, with whom he became fast friends and the perfect dance partner. They dated for some time and were married in 1998. Finally, in 2007, Dean and Joy moved to Fresno, where they accompanied one another until the end of his life.

I am not in a position to talk about Dean as a parent, a husband, a co-worker, or a comrade-in-arms, but I am lucky enough to have had him be a very active part of my life as a grandparent.

I can say without equivocation that he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. He knew at least a little bit about everything, and a great deal about certain things.

I remember the day when, on the way to grandpa's house, I asked my mom about binary numbers, which I didn't quite understand. She dared me to pass the question onto grandpa. I was well aware that to present him with a question, any question, was to invite grave risk. But I wanted to know, so I took a deep breath and unleashed grandpa upon myself.

When he was finished with me that day, or perhaps it was the next, I can't say that I had learned much. The problem with his explanation isn't that it was sparse or unclear, but that it was encyclopedic. Binary numbers, in concept and in practice, had been explained to me totally. The only reason he stopped talking is because my mom and I left, and I'm only assuming that he stopped talking.

As the years went on, a visit with grandpa became less something to brace myself for and more something to look forward to. With age I was better able to appreciate his wit, for one thing. Always stunning in its speed and agility, and full of subtleties (to put it delicately) that a child could hear, but only an adult could understand.

And his knowledge of all things electronic and mechanical became fascinating, and at times genuinely useful, as my life and livelihood began to gravitate increasingly around my own technical inclinations.

I am awed and humbled to observe how the seeds that he has sown into the bloodline have manifested with such wonderful diversity and potency among his children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We have much to thank him for. Indeed, we have everything to thank him for. He will echo for as long as we do.

And while today I must say goodbye to him in the world of flesh and blood, parting with him will never be necessary in the universe of memory. I am there with him right now, beside his rocking chair. He is talking. There is nothing but his voice, a dark sky outside, and the ticking, whirring, and ringing of the forest of clocks that surrounds us.

I am not his captive; I am captivated.

Dean McNeely

Written and read by Chris Psaros - chris@psaros.com - at Dean McNeely's memorial,
Sunday, July 29th, 2012, Cherokee Memorial Park, Lodi, CA