Their time together had become less frequent the past couple of years because Bucky, a 1973 Collegiate alumnus, attended Davidson College, and Jamie was working hard to complete his coursework at Collegiate so he could graduate in June 1976.
The big deal this late December evening, other than the camaraderie and enjoyment of an all-too-rare shared experience, was that Jamie was at the wheel of a 15-year-old Ford Fairlane that he had bought with his earnings from cutting grass and doing any other odd job he could pick up.
“He really wanted to drive,” Bucky recalled. “I was glad to let him do it because it meant so much to him. That night, we were dealing peer-to-peer, not big brother-to-little brother, just two guys going to the movies. One had just bought a new car. I really admired him for that. It was white, very nondescript, but it was his, and he wanted to show it off. I’m just glad we got that time together.”
Six weeks later, at 4 o’clock on Saturday morning, February 14, Bucky was summoned to the phone.
There’s been an accident, his dad Bill Neal told him. Jamie’s in critical condition. There’s a plane ticket waiting for you at the Charlotte airport. Get home as fast as you can.
Jamie passed away the next day. He was 17 years old.
As the word spread, there was a sense of shock, devastation and utter disbelief. This can’t possibly be real. No. Never. Jamie’s such a great guy. Everyone loves him. Why Jamie? Why?
Jamie, like his brother, was a Collegiate lifer. Though he was plenty smart, school sometimes presented challenges for him. Nevertheless, he plugged away and persevered. He had applied to Virginia Tech and VMI and was waiting to hear back.
Around school, he was always the support person. He served as a manager for athletic teams and in the crew for theatrical performances. He was just happy to play his part. He didn’t need acclaim. In all that he did, he was kind and gentle, quiet and dependable, and trustworthy. Integrity, you see, was his greatest attribute.
What endeared Jamie to others?
“His smile,” Bucky said. “He was genuinely glad to see people and make them feel welcome. Everybody around Collegiate knew who Jamie was. He was a very kind guy who chipped in and did his job without a lot of recognition. He just intuitively knew he didn’t have to be the guy out front. The phrase ‘servant leadership’ wasn’t in vogue then, but that’s the way he operated.”
“A number of kids came to me or Mom (Mary Sue) after Jamie died,” Bucky continued. “These were kids who were sort of marginalized at church or at school, didn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd. They told us Jamie included them. One of the girls in the youth fellowship at our church told me recently that Jamie bridged the cliques. He wasn’t consciously being nice. He saw everybody the same way. He didn’t see differences. Jamie was the kind of guy that if you knew him, you remembered him.”
How did you manage at the time? I asked.
“Bottom line,” Bucky responded, “it was how real the Christian faith is to me, my parents, and Jamie. Heaven became very real for me when I was 21 years old because my brother was there. There’s this hope that comes with following Christ. That’s how we made it through, plain and simple.”
And now, after 44 years?
“I grieved for a long while, but I would say that the pain is really gone,” Bucky continued. “People ask, ‘How do you get over it?’ Well, you don’t get over it. You get through it. These days, I still miss him. I have six grandchildren. I’d love for Jamie to know them. I’d love for them to know Jamie. There’s regret, certainly. To use a word out of the Bible: lamentations. I lament that he’s not here, but it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
What would you tell a family newly embarking on this journey? I asked him.
“I don’t know that I would tell them much of anything,” Bucky replied. “I would go to see them and sit with them and, if they’d lost a brother, let them tell me about their brother.
“There are no words that will make it better. I’ve been in that pit, and I know the way out. I’d help them process, do everything I could to help them through their grief.”
On May 29, 1976 – Jamie’s 18th birthday – the James Strupe Neal Garden located between the wings of the Boys School, now Pitt Hall, came to fruition in a moving ceremony.
Within a gated enclosure is a statue of a young boy – gleeful, carefree, and blithe-spirited – at play.
“Friends of Mom and Dad who wanted to remain anonymous purchased the statue in 1972,” Bucky said. “They just liked it, but they didn’t have a place to put it. It was still in a crate in their basement when Jamie died.
“The little boy doesn’t look like Jamie. It isn’t supposed to be Jamie. It just represents the freedom of youth, the joy with which he lived his life. Jamie was very content. He had that joy.”
(Bucky Neal, who’s the father of four adult children, is semi-retired following a long career in financial services, land surveying, and consulting. He devotes much of his time now to volunteer work, primarily to promote racial reconciliation in Richmond.)