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A teacher who touched many lives

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image Brian McNeeley with his sons, Tayton and Dillon. Photo courtesy of Mindy Laing-McNeely

Brian McNeely excelled as a father, a husband, a son, a teacher and a friend.

By KEVIN BRADY
 
A father, a husband, a son, a teacher and a friend, Brian McNeely was known by many names, but those who were closest to him all agree on one thing: He excelled at them all.

The Eisenhower Middle School teacher died Jan. 5 after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 28 and married with two young children, Tayton, 9, and Dillon, 1. Brian and his wife, Mindy Laing-McNeely, had exchanged wedding rings barely three months earlier.

“At first he was asking ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ But he always thought he could beat it,” said Mindy, who met Brian when she was teaching special-needs children at Eisenhower Middle School in Gibsonton.

“I would see him every day at work and see how he was with the kids, and it just blossomed from there,” she recalled.

A physical education teacher, Brian was remembered last week by family, friends and colleagues at the Brian McNeely Turn Around Student Award Breakfast at Eisenhower, where he taught for six years.

The award celebrates students for improvement in academics, behavior or attendance. The Waterset Community catered the breakfast and donated three iPads to students who were chosen by random drawing from the list of those nominated. The second-largest middle school in the county, Eisenhower serves 1,600 students from Riverview, Gibsonton and Apollo Beach.

McNeely would be the first to congratulate the young scholars on the award, said Matt Bellia, an Eisenhower teacher.

“He was great with kids,” Bellia said. “Every single kid loved him. A lot of them would come and talk to him the way they wouldn’t be able to with other teachers. He was just able to relate to the students. I miss him, and I know the students miss him.”

That rapport with children was critical for Mindy when she first met her future husband. With a 4-year-old boy, she had to make sure the man she gave her heart to would also open his heart to her son.

“Brian coached my son’s baseball team while we were dating,” Mindy said, “and another parent was watching him coach Tayton. ‘You mean to tell me that’s not his kid he’s coaching?’ they said. It didn’t matter to Brian. He treated Tayton like he was his own child,” Mindy said.

Ricky Krause, a nursing teacher at Fortis College in Largo, was a fixture during McNeely’s hospital stays.

“Brian was one of those people you could turn to,” Krause said, “and it didn’t matter what it was, he would be there. He cared about everyone.” Krause said he and Brian were roommates at the University of Tampa.

Despite the ravages of his disease, Brian was still there at the end, Krause said. “We would sit by his bedside and tell stories about things he did in college, and he would look at me as if to say ‘How dare you tell Mindy that, she didn’t know that.’”

“He was like a brother and best friend to me,” said Greg Pepitone, who shared a dorm, and later a house, with Brian. “He would do anything for you at any time, no questions asked.”

John Young, an Eisenhower colleague, counted McNeely as one of his closest friends. “There’s a saying that your true friends are those you can call at midnight and they will be there. Brian was one of those,” Young said.

A gentle giant of a man with an infectious personality, Brian commanded the respect of his young charges. One admonishing look from McNeely and a student who was not lining up properly for lunch would get in line.

“Brian could do that look from 50 feet across the room,” said Paul Burke, a dropout-prevention specialist at Eisenhower. “It was incredible. I don’t know how he did it.”

Teachers at Eisenhower, on hearing of Brian’s disease, pooled all their vacation time, giving Brian an extra 14 weeks of paid time off during his treatment.

McNeely is missed by his students and colleagues, said Danielle Shotwell, Eisenhower’s principal.

“Brian was a very dedicated teacher, focused on student achievement, and was very much loved here,” Shotwell said.

McNeely’s passing was also marked with a tribute during a Tampa Bay Lightning broadcast, a video Brian’s son still watches.

Lightning announcer, Rick Peckham, who expressed the team’s condolences to the McNeely family on air, also stopped by the breakfast awards breakfast.

“Brian took time out from his cancer treatment to attend a Lightning game, returning to the hospital soon after,” Peckham said. “That really touched a lot of people at the Lightning, so we are happy to do anything to honor his memory.” 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also donated game tickets, sports bags, a remembrance letter and team hats for the family, and the Tampa Bay Rays contributed  a tour of their stadium for 25 Eisenhower students, four tickets to a home game and other gifts.

“The partnerships and community approach to supporting these 16 Turn Around students as well as to help us pay tribute to one of our fallen is incredible,” Burke said.

The woman who opened her heart to McNeely said the support of her family and colleagues has been “amazing. It’s been hard, but I guess you just take it a day at a time.”

Friends recall Brian McNeely

An avid sports fan, Brian McNeely coached his son’s Little League team in the Bloomingdale Youth Sports Association. He also coached Eisenhower’s track and football team. The school’s football field was renamed “McNeely Field” last month.

An online campaign by his wife asking for donations to buy sports equipment for the teams in lieu of funeral flowers raised $2,795. The goal was only $1,500.

Following are comments made by some of those who donated to the campaign.

“We will never forget the memories that were made up at Bloomingdale Little League and the lives Brian touched with coaching and teaching. It was an honor to have coached with him and Reece has made it a point to let us know that we now truly have an angel in the outfield.”
— Chris, Charlene, Reece and Rhyan Yetman

“It was an honor coaching with Brian, and I will always remember his passion and his devotion to the kids on our teams. Amanda and I, along with our children, are devastated by the loss, yet grateful for having known him.”
— Joe and Amanda Magadan

“Your influence on the lives of students here at Eisenhower will be felt for many years to come.”
— Rita Simmons

“Rest in peace, Brian. You are still making a difference, and this lasting impression will be felt and remembered by those who will benefit from it.”
— Abdul Hemani

“Brian, you are a true example of a wonderful teacher, coach, father, son and husband.”
— Melissa Faasse

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