Two lifetimes worth of trailblazing community service were recognized at Centralia College on Friday when an honorary plaque dedicated to Robert and Freddie Neal was unveiled at the school.
Dozens of attendees braved chilly temperatures and an untimely rain storm in order to bear witness the ceremony that honored the African American educators and civic leaders who made a home for themselves in Rochester until Robert Neal’s passing in 2011. The plaque can be seen on the honorary wall located between the commons area, the library, and the clock tower at the center of campus.
“They had a sense of commitment to help individuals, their students, to grow. To be able to survive outside of the community. A sense of life skills,” noted the son of Freddie and Robert, Golden Neal, after the ceremony. “Even though they faced opposition they would not allow that opposition to drive them out. Dad would say, ‘You know, if people are treating you badly I just make them mad because I just stay.’ It gives you a real sense of that sticktoitiveness.”
Robert Neal was the first African American graduate of Centralia College. He went on to become the curator of the Capital Museum in Olympia, in addition to earning respect as an artist and jewelry designer, among many other undertakings. He also served on the Southwest Washington Fair Board, and helped organize, and was once honorary marshal, of Rochester Swede Day. He was also active with entities such as the Department of Corrections, Rochester Lions Club, Thurston County Art League, Boy Scouts of America, Pacific Northwest United Methodist Conference, Thurston County Urban League, and the Rochester Food Bank.
“I’m really surprised by the number of people who I come across randomly and they’ll ask, ‘Are you Golden Neal, or a Neal?’ And then they’ll share, ‘Oh ya, your dad helped me as a community service. I had gone astray. He allowed me to develop some skills. He was really good to me. Mom, she enabled her students travel all over the world,” added Golden Neal while cordially greeting members of the community after the event.
Freddie Neal, who was able to attend the ceremony surrounded by her family, made a name for herself as foreign language and physical education teacher for the Rochester School District where she also coached track and field. She was also served on both the Rochester School Board and the Advisory Council for Alternative Education, while remaining active in the associations of American Association of University Women and Delta Kappa Gamma.
The Neal’s younger son, Geoffrey, spoke about his parents during the presentation. He was relieved to see their massive efforts come full circle after so many years of watching their toils from up close and behind the scenes.
“Several decades ago when I was little, seeing the amount of time that my parents gave to the community of Rochester, Lewis County, and Thurston County, I knew they were making a lot of impact but I just didn’t know why. So there were a lot of times that I though, ‘Man, I wish they were here now.’ But I knew deep down that the impact that they were making was really, really, really important,” said Geoffrey Neal. “It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I was having a conversation, and adult conversation with my mom when she said that a lot of the sacrifices she made were in order to make the world a better place. I want people to remember that.”
One story shared several times during the ceremony was that of Freddie Neal’s arrival in Lewis County at the Chehalis train depot. As the story goes, she was met at the station by members of the Rochester School District who didn’t realize that their new-hire teacher was both an African-American, and a woman. Those surprises prompted the school district to shift Freddie Neal over to the Maple Lane School for Girls for several years before she proved her merits to her doubters in the community and was brought into the fold at the high school.
It was obvious during the ceremony that examples of uncommon perseverance and selfless service has affected legions of community members over the decades.
“It’s quite amazing the cultural witness that my parents had in this community. Coming to a community that initially did not want to hire them, or house them in this community. But yet, it was a fire at the Rochester Methodist Church that allowed my parents to become involved and members in this community,” noted Golden Neal in the opening remarks of his speech during the ceremony. “An invitation was extended to them by the members of that church that allowed a cultural missionary to become a teacher and a homeless teen to become ‘The Mayor’ of Rochester.”