Former White House staffer, Roy Neel is pictured here with former President Bill Clinton as he shakes a young man’s hand. Photo submitted
Editor’s note: The following is the second part in a two-part series
As a boy, Roy Neel often rode his bike from his home on Oak Street to explore the nooks and crannies in and out of the Sam Davis Home, Smyrna’s most well-known historic residence.
As an adult, the Smyrna native son and graduate of Murfreesboro’s old Central High School ascended to a political consultant career, making him privy to the innermost trappings of government in the nation’s most famous dwelling, the White House, in Washington, D.C.
Neel, who recently toured The Gore Center at MTSU, shared his early trail of life that ultimately placed him at the center of some of this nation’s most extraordinary government events when he served as chief-of-staff to Vice President Al Gore and deputy chief-of-staff to President Bill Clinton.
His parents, (the late) Walter and Lois Young Neel, birthed three sons, including Roy, now age 68, Hibbett Neel, a prominent Jackson, Miss., engineer with more than 40 offices throughout the nation, including the Neel/Shaffer Engineering firm in Murfreesboro, and Pat Neel, who died young at age 53.
The Neel family blood line courses far back in Smyrna history annals.
“Sam Davis (the Confederate War hero who went to the gallows at Pulaski, Tenn.) is my great, great uncle,” Neel noted back in time. “As a boy, I often rode my bicycle to fish in Stewart’s Creek beside the big house. And since an older relative served as caretaker of the Sam Davis Home back then, I was often inside the residence as an inquisitive boy exploring all the rooms and contents.
“My brothers and I often participated in Sam Davis family heritage celebrations,” Neel added.
Neel’s first grandchild, one-month old Henry Davis Neel, carries the historic “Davis” name into the new century.
Their ancestry goes back to South Carolina before the Tucker side of the Neel family moved to Smyrna in the 1800s to build the “Tucker House” at 112 Oak Street. That historic dwelling still stands, but is known today as the “Cheney House.”
“I ultimately inherited that residence that stayed in our family 140 years,” Neel confirmed. “Because of my career and life in Washington, we had to let the house sell, but proud to note the current owners have restored the dwelling to its former prominence.”
Neel’s uncle, Brainard Cheney (1900-1990), was an author who wrote five novels and worked as a political reporter in the 1930s and 1940s at the Nashville Banner, a newspaper (now defunct) that ultimately launched Roy Neel’s journalism career.
His Aunt Frances “Fannie” Neel Cheney was PhD professor of Library Science at Vanderbilt University, where she worked for many years. His aunt and uncle profoundly affected their nephew’s love for language arts.
"We lived a couple houses away, so I spent a lot of time with my aunt and uncle in their home,” Neel recalls. “They were people who not only were accomplished writers, but they valued literature in a way I had not experienced. It was an exciting place to hang out. They were great hosts and close friends too many people from all over the world, a lot of whom I didn’t realize were major literary figures until I was in my twenties.”
After graduating in 1963 from Central High in Murfreesboro, Neel followed the family footsteps to Vanderbilt and eventually attended Harvard, where he achieved a Master of Public Administration degree.
He frequently comes back to the Middle Tennessee from his residence in Washington, where he and his wife, an attorney, reside.
“I was back in Murfreesboro for my 50th class reunion,” Neel shared. “(Murfreesboro resident) Mike Fitzhugh was our class president back in 1963.”
“Roy was a very good student,” Fitzhugh said in looking back to their high school days. “He was a popular student and belonged to our high school fraternity.”
Neel served in Vietnam with the Navy as a photojournalist, before working as a sportswriter at the Nashville Banner in 1971-72.
Sportswriter Neel’s book (Dynamite! 75 Years of Vanderbilt Basketball) can still be found on bookshelves in many Middle Tennessee homes.
Author Neel is currently writing a book about transitions of U.S. presidents due to be published in 2015.
Having served as an adjunct professor every other semester back at Vanderbilt since 2001, Neel voiced concern about language and writing skills of modern-day students. He also teaches at Melbourne University in Australia and is in demand as a motivational speaker.
“Some students only text. That’s as close to writing they ever get,” Neel noted. “As a society, we’re not cultivating writing skills.”