Exeter Awards: Count Your Blessings
It wasn’t until helping those in poverty became his calling that John McNeil recalled that he grew up poor. He said his parents would cram he and his four sisters into a car and drive to the mountains for a day, sharing the rarest of treats – a single soda pop.
“I don’t think my kids or a lot of kids today know what being poor means,” McNeil said. “We didn’t know it at the time, but we didn’t have any money.”
McNeil credits his parents for instilling in him strong values, the kind that turn the lack of money into an opportunity for free family fun. No money for the movies meant a day outdoors on the basketball court. No money for treats meant that every treat was something very special, no matter how small. They also instilled a love of sports and athletic activity in their children, something they did for many other Exeter children as well.
“Being a mentor is the most rewarding part of coaching,” McNeil said. “To be able to have a positive influence on a young person’s life is truly a blessing.”
McNeil was born in Glendale, Calif. His family moved to Exeter in 1969, just in time for McNeil to begin attending Exeter schools in kindergarten. He would graduate from Exeter Union High School in 1983. His father, Fred McNeil, coached basketball for 30 years at EUHS and his mother, Ginny McNeil, worked at the high school while also coaching softball, volleyball and basketball. McNeil said his parents taught him to work hard and do what’s right, the best coaching advice anyone could give, and advice he credits with helping him be named Exeter’s 2012 Man of the Year.
“As a parent myself, the award is good for my parents to know they did good,” he said. “I am extremely humbled by this award, but for my parents I hope it reinforces that they raised a good son. I am proud for my parents.”
As he got older, McNeil said God called him to begin attending church and serving his community. About 15 years ago, as a member of the Church of God of Exeter, McNeil began helping the Exeter Fossils raise food donations, package them and deliver them just before Thanksgiving. Known as Exeter Blessings, McNeil said the Fossils needed more help financially and eventually turned over the community service to the church. McNeil credits his wife, Angela, with planning the donations and manpower, while he worked to get more churches involved, the youth involved and deliver more food to more people.
“I knew if we all came together, all the churches, we would become bigger and stronger,” he said. “Seeing people in need really drove me and our group to do more each year.”
At the height of its success, Exeter Blessings involved seven churches in Exeter and delivered food to more than 400 families for Thanksgiving. An Army of workers formed assembly lines in the old Nichols-Payless building with a fleet of volunteer vehicles awaiting food boxes and delivery instructions just outside its doors. However, in 2009 and 2010, McNeil said Exeter Blessings came up short of its goals to feed everyone in need within the community. McNeil said it was a sign from God that he should put his efforts into something else. Without the McNeils’ leadership the food drive was canceled in 2011 and has not been held since 2010.
“Everything has its season and its season has passed,” McNeil said. “I wish the churches would work together more often. If we all worked together we could accomplish great things in our community. I think Exeter Blessings was proof of that.”
“Coaching isn’t about teaching sports, it’s about teaching life,” McNeil said. “My parents did such a good job teaching me about life that now I can teach life to others.”
As McNeil got married and had three daughters of his own, he began to follow in his parents footsteps. He began coaching the Exeter Eels swim team as part of the Central Valley Recreation Youth Swim League. He coached EUHS girls basketball from 2007-2011. Since 2008, McNeil has also coached diving at EUHS and COS. His efforts helped EUHS diver Roderick Burkett win the Division II Valley Championship last spring. He also raised money for various sports boosters groups and more recently helped raise $70,000 in just three months to put a new scoreboard at EUHS pool.
“This is where I am supposed to serve,” McNeil said. “This is where God keeps calling me to serve. There is just something about Exeter. I call it God’s Country because when it’s foggy everywhere else, the sun seems to be shinning here.”
Throughout all of his community service, McNeil credits his employer, Monarch Ford, for allowing him the flexibility to follow his calling. He said owners Paul, Jr. and Mike Deathriage allowed him to leave work early for practice and even take a two-hour lunch to pick up bread for the Exeter Food Closet. This May would have been McNeil’s 24th anniversary with the dealership, but he decided in January to begin a new career that will give him more time to focus on his family and his community.
“Everything I’ve done is through God and church,” he said. “I am just trying to live like the values instilled in me by my parents and to be His servant.”
Exeter Celebrates Town’s Excellence
Exeter’s Man and Woman of the Year, Heritage, Beautification and Business of the Year will be honored at the Exeter Chamber of Commerce 90th Annual Banquet at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23 at the Exeter Memorial Building.
Tickets are $40 per person and are available at the Exeter Chamber of Commerce. For more information, call 559-592-2919 or visit www.exeterchamber.com. The honorees for the year 2012 are:
Man of the Year: John McNeil
Woman of the Year: Marta King
Heritage Award: Mary Scott and Dale Sally, Jr.
Beautification Award: Frosty King
Business of the Year: By The Water Tower Antiques
Recycler of the Year: Gabe Espinoza