Memories are a funny thing.
When we look back at people and experiences from childhood through the perspective of our adult lens, the picture can be quite different than how we remember it.
We lost a wonderful man late last week. Ernest "Ernie" Neil of State College lost his battle with cancer.
In these last weeks when we knew that treatment was no longer an option and that this horrible disease would soon claim another life, family and friends have visited with Ernie and his family, shared stories and extended their hands in support of one of State College's own.
As a teenager, Ernie Neil used to scare the hell out of me.
I met Lori Neil in junior high and she remains one of my best friends. The Neil's moved here from Williamsport because Ernie's job had transferred him to the State College office. We were cheerleaders together. My older sister and Lori's older sister, Dana, were also friends.
Jane, the middle Neil sister was two years ahead of me in high school. Originally from Scottsville, Kentucky, their mother Emma still has that unmistakable southern drawl. Ernie was a big man with a piercing stare and a no nonsense way of reminding the group of teenage girls giggling in their basement or heading out for the evening, to "behave."
For the Neil girls and their friends, going out to the movies or a party and perhaps not sharing with our parents all the details of the plans for the evening, getting by Ernie was always the last and toughest test. (To the young men who came to the house in hopes of dating one of the Neil girls, Ernie's finger breaking handshake and unblinking stare down was an even greater test.)
I later found out that behind that gruff exterior was a sweet, nurturing man who used humor and high expectations to keep his daughters – and their friends – in line. He was at his best in the role of father, husband and eventually, grandfather.
The chapters of Ernie's life that didn't include Emma (or Emmer as he called her) were merely a prologue to a lifelong partnership. They met in elementary school and started dating when she was 13 and he was 15. Ernie attended college on full scholarship to play both baseball and basketball. He majored in what today we would call Kinesiology.
After college he did a two year stint in the Army about which Ernie used to say basketball saved him from going to Korea. An Army General pegged him for his basketball skills and invited him to join a team that toured the country, building morale for the troops.
Married in 1953, Emma and Ernie set up house in Scottsville and he began his career as a small town high school teacher and where he served as coach of every sport the high school offered. He worked heavy construction in the summers to help supplement what in those days was a very meager teacher's salary. Emma took a job as an administrative assistant in the Sherriff's office in the small rural town where they lived.
If you know Emma, you can understand why we giggled when we learned that she was eventually deputized and held the title Deputy Sherriff in that office. She even had a badge.
On a routine visit into the Sherriff's office, an FBI agent stationed in Scottsville asked Emma if she knew of anyone who might be interested in working for "the Bureau." Emma suggested Ernie, thinking that an FBI salary might be better than a high school teacher's pay. Focused. Athletic. Great at relationships with others. A leader and a role model. Ernie was soon on his way to Quantico to complete the FBI training.
Ernie's career in the FBI took the family from Kentucky to Nebraska to Iowa and eventually to Pennsylvania. Assignments in Philadelphia and then State College and then Williamsport and back. They finally settled in State College and Ernie served Centre and surrounding counties until his retirement.
There were some classic "Ernie the G-Man" stories that we still laugh about. Rumors that when Jane and Lori would bicker, he would handcuff one of their wrists to the other's ankle. The time in 7th grade that we all gave our lunch money to Lori so she could get a bus ticket to see her boyfriend in Williamsport. (School lunches were about 55 cents at the time; the ticket was somewhere in the $4 range).
When Ernie went to pick up the girls from school, Jane says "I caved" and told him "All I heard was something about a bus ticket to Williamsport." Ernie went to the bus station, flashed his FBI badge with Lori's school picture and asked "Have you seen this girl?" "Yes" said the person selling tickets. "She bought a ticket to Williamsport." He was soon speeding down Interstate 80.
Lori laughs now and says, "I saw him as soon as we got there. He beat the bus there. I thought about hiding in the bathroom but knew he'd show his badge and would clear the bus." The image of a scared seventh grader, holding only her junior high yearbook, stepping off that bus to face Ernie Neil is one of my all-time favorite memories from adolescence. Lori smiles and says "That was a long ride home."
Ernie's career involved much more than runaway teenagers. The daughters talk about phone calls in the middle of the night after which their Dad would quickly leave. They learned to write down cryptic phone messages and give those messages to their Dad as soon as he came home. Ernie would come home after days away, tired and not be able to share where he had been or what he was doing.
Jane told me last week that "as soon as he came home from work, he would change out of his work clothes and his evenings were with us." Emma and Ernie in the stands at the girl's high school events and later at those of their grandchildren was a common sight. They never missed a game.
One of those late night calls that came into the Neil house is now part of Centre County history. Two local thugs – brothers who owned a motorcycle repair shop in town – devised a plan to kidnap a member of the Meyer family (owners of the Autoport at the time) as a way to make some quick money.
Although the original plan was to take Mrs. Meyer and then ransom her for cash, they ended up taking daughter Beth who offered herself in place of her mother who was ill. Because of his friendship with the Neils, Mr. Meyer frantically called Ernie at home that night. Lori took that phone call and first told Mr. Meyer that her Dad was sleeping.
He said, "Lori, my daughter has been kidnapped. I need to talk to your Dad." With local law enforcement and the contingent of FBI agents that swooped into town to help, Beth was recovered without injury but not before she was chained overnight in the basement of an abandoned farm house, in the cold without proper clothing.
Years later when we asked Ernie about that case, he said, "those guys were so dumb we almost knew where she was before they got there." At one point, one of those kidnappers called in ransom demands from a row of old wooden phone booths that used to be on the first floor of the HUB. There were FBI agents in the phone booths on each side when he made that call. (The kidnappers have reportedly served their sentences and have been released back into the community.)
Beth stopped in to see Ernie last weekend for Father's Day. As she has many times since, she thanked Ernie again for saving her life. With his voice weakening, he said, "I saved a friend."
Ernie eventually retired from the FBI and had a second career in security analysis with MBNA. That opportunity gave the Neils the chance to travel and spend some time abroad. After retiring a second time, the Neils spent months in Florida each year with friends and made frequent trips to Kentucky. Their house in State College has remained their home base.
A long-time member of St. Paul's Methodist Church in State College, Ernie is survived by Emma, his wife of 61 years; his daughters Dana, Jane and Lori; his sons-in-law Van Arvin and Rusty Orelli; his grandchildren Tiffany Fuller, Cole Arvin, Austin Orelli, Camille Orelli Seeling, Vince Orelli and great-grandson Nash Orelli. Ernie was heartbroken after the recent death of his son-in-law Bobby Keffer.
Dana's best friend from Scottsville, Rogerlynne Buchanon Bridden said it best. "The Neils made each of us feel like we were the fourth Neil daughter." The legions of children and grandchildren who have had the benefits of being part of the Neil family or played on a sports team with one of the Neils know what she means.
The FBI agent who I feared as a teenager was actually a warm, sweet man who lived for his family. I am so glad that I got to know him as an adult.
Author Mitch Albom said "Love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone."
If that is true, Ernie Neil will live a very long time.
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