Dave McNeilly: Community Builder and MacDonald Island Founding Father
He is a husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather. He has received numerous accolades for his achievements as an educator, politician. He has been called “our very own Energizer Bunny as he has done so much for our region.” He is recognized as a great man, advocate and friend to many.
But Dave McNeilly will demurely shake his head and say no it’s not just about him, remarking on all the giving volunteers, staff and friends he has worked with over the years. Without them, he maintains, he wouldn’t have been successful.
Those honours include provincial and local awards for his significant contributions to not only education, but to his community such as being named the Golden Years Society’s Male Senior of the Year in 2001; receiving the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005 and the Queen Elizabeth II, Diamond Jubilee Award in 2013; and the ATA Council on School Administration Distinguished Service Award for Administrator of the Year in 1976.
“These are great honours, but I really have to share these with so many volunteers. I so respect people who volunteer,” says McNeilly.
“I was on committees and boards like Keyano College, Dr. Clark School, during rapid growth. I had a staff of 50 people under me; a wonderful bunch of people.”
But it’s the love of his life, Vivian, who gets most of his praise.
Looking over his collection of plaques and pins that reflect far-reaching gratitude for his years of dedication, his gaze shifts to his wife of 57 years sitting across from him.
“First of all, when you talk these awards, they’re not totally all mine. Vivian is a great part of these honours.” Lovingly smiling at her, he breathes deep to stem the tears threatening to overflow.
“One could never do this alone. This is a partnership.”
Their family has grown from four children to include 12 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
The latest recognition for this community builder is a school dedication. The Fort McMurray Public School District is naming its new school in Parsons Creek after McNeilly, thanks to the nomination of two of his former students. In 1967, he became the first principal of Dr. K.A. Clark Elementary School, where he met Gail Sparrow and Carol Cleminson,
“I just remember him as being a really good principal ... very nice man,” says Cleminson.
She greatly admires him for stepping up over the years, helping make the community such a better place and how he always shared his successes with Vivian.
“He really gave so much to this community.”
Though the school is not scheduled to open until 2016, the district held a dedication ceremony in September because of McNeilly’s ill health.
“I found it quite moving they decided to have the dedication ceremony knowing I wasn’t well.”
He never dreamed he’d have a school named after him. “Never once,” he smiles. “That’s far beyond my ever expectations. It was a great honour.”
In March 2014, McNeilly was told he was “full of cancer” and given five months. However, with the help of Dr. Michel Sauve here in town and Dr. Chua at the Cross Cancer Institute, he proudly says he was told he was in remission just after the school dedication.
McNeilly began his teaching career in northern Alberta in 1960 in a one-room school in Conklin. Both he and Vivian had grown up in rural Saskatchewan “so it wasn’t strange to us.” Even with no running water.
“When you think back, coming from such humble beginnings to the comforts of today, you’re most appreciative,” he notes.
Until McNeilly’s arrival, the school had only been open in the summer when university students were available to teach.
Later that same year, the school became part of the Northland School Division. A portable was later attached to allow for a second teacher. McNeilly remained with Northland until 1967, teaching at various other schools including Gift Lake and Fishing Lake.
From there, it was north to Fort McMurray for his career at Dr. Clark. Though close to 50 years ago, he experienced some of the same challenges faced by schools today.
It’s difficult, he says, to put an exact number of how many students were in the school, but he estimates near 1,000, about double what the school was built for.
“We started out with a library then they divided the library up so we could put students in there. Then they built a wing and it wasn’t enough; they brought in a bunch of portables; just the same old story we’ve gone through for years,” he says.
“When we first came, there was terrible turnover. Every Friday there’d be 15, 20 students leaving and on Monday, there’d be 20, 25 new students so our whole population that first year almost completely turned over.”
Keeping up with all those kids was tough and McNeilly admits “If you lined them up and asked me their names, I’d have difficulty, but you tell me your name and I’ll tell you something about yourself.”
When McNeilly was in hospital last year, one of his former students came to visit his roommate. “He saw me there and he said ‘Hello Mr. McNeilly.’ And I said, ‘Boy, you’ve grown up,’ and I said ‘How come you’ve got white hair?’” he chuckled.
“I recognized him as a little boy; his features and mannerisms were the same.”
Watching the kids grow – “Well that’s the wonderful part. Those memories of the many students who went through Dr. Clark who are outstanding citizens and our leaders of today — that are the ultimate reward.
“They’re all over the world. They’re educators, engineers, doctors, lawyers; a good cross-section of society.”
But Dr. Clark was filled with more than just students.
“We had over 100 and some volunteers that would come in to Dr. Clark School; parents. The place was buzzing with adults as volunteers during school hours and after school.”
At that time, people only worked eight-hour shifts unlike today’s 12 to 16, meaning they had a lot more time to be with their families.
“The heart of a community, in my opinion, is the people who volunteer not for personal gain, but for the betterment of the community.”
McNeilly was also instrumental in the creation of the legacy that is MacDonald Island Park.
When he started teaching back in the 1950s in Vancouver, he would go to Stanley Park and admire those leaders for having the vision to create such a “fabulous site” for the enjoyment of the public.
He saw that same opportunity when strolling through MacDonald Island Park. He sat on the MacDonald Island Steering Committee from 1975 to 1978, but never dreamed he would see it go through such a massive second expansion.
“When I came here, I walked over to MacDonald Island a number of times because I like the outdoors. I used to think this is a perfect place for a community park system, golf course; never once dreaming that it would be as big it as it is today, but to preserve it, to me, was the important thing.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been conflict between developers.
“We’ve heard the same story over the years: We have to build this, but we have no space. ... ‘But oh, that beautiful island. Why don’t we put the school there? Why don’t we build houses there?’ Well as soon as you do that, you have destroyed our vision of open space for all the public.”
He acknowledged credit must be given to the councillors of yesteryear when they decided it must remain a public space and to the council of today, because they’re still battling.
These days, McNeilly sticks close to home, his breathing aided by an oxygen mask. He has fibrosis of the lungs.
His words come slowly and deliberate, the need to pause for breath more frequent, but don’t be fooled. He remains passionate about current affairs, especially the aging in place facility.
He firmly believes the respect he witnessed for elders in his early teaching days in Conklin plays a role in his advocacy for seniors here.
“I was always impressed because they always showed such fabulous respect for the elders which you don’t see today in Fort McMurray.”
Grateful for the life he’s been afforded in Fort McMurray, he admits the lack of a long-term care facility is the greatest disappointment he’s had to face here.