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John McNeil: 1919-2021

John McNeil, UCLA emeritus professor of education, died on April 10 at the age of 101. The scholar of reading…

John McNeil, UCLA emeritus professor of education, died on April 10 at the age of 101. The scholar of reading and international development arrived at UCLA in 1956 to lead the Teacher Education Program and was a World War II veteran who served as a gunnery officer onboard the USS Achernar, a cargo ship that was deployed in the Battle of Normandy on June 6, 1944, with General Omar Bradley and General Courtney Hodges on board. 

Since 2016, Professor McNeil had been co-teaching a course on international development and on entrepreneurial philanthropy with his former student Octavio Pescador (’93, B.A., Political Science; ’03, Ph.D., Education), in which UCLA undergraduates worked on projects to address issues including health, the environment, and reducing inequality. The co-instructors were planning to resume the course this spring.

UCLA Wasserman Dean Christina (Tina) Christie recalls her colleague and friend.

“John McNeil first walked into Moore Hall in 1956. I imagine that he began his work at UCLA with the same curiosity and care that he showed even just last week, during his final days with us,” she says. “He was unassuming, never wanting attention to be focused on him. Indeed, he much preferred to talk about an issue he read and was reflecting upon in a manuscript you had written. He never stopped thinking about how to make education better for children, their families and communities. He admired teachers and teaching. 

“He loved Ed&IS – he loved us, his colleagues and students. We inspired him and he was so grateful for that. I loved asking him about ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ in the day’s New York Times, as he would so often provide a preview of an article I hadn’t yet read. I always walked away from John smiling. And I know that is how he left Moore Hall on his final day at UCLA. Thank you, John, for sharing with us your life well-lived.” 

“John was lifelong learning incarnate,” says Pescador, senior research associate at Juárez and Associates and founding research associate of the UCLA Paulo Freire Institute. “He was an infallibly cheerful educator who taught many of us, often in Moore Hall’s hallways, how to read the world and make it better. His profound love for humanity propelled his journey across the centuries from his Navy officer days to his last lecture on March 31, 2021. A professor, gentleman, and friend who taught and learned until the end.”

John Donald McNeil was born on October 29 in Cherokee, Iowa to Elizabeth Scott (McCulloch) McNeil and George McNeil. He had three sisters, Helen and Maxine McNeil, who died in childhood from the 1918 influenza epidemic, and Margaret Cotton, with whom he was very close until her death in 1987.

McNeil’s family moved to California to find a better life in the wake of the Great Depression and settled in San Diego. In 1940, he first set foot on the UCLA campus to enlist in the U.S. Navy at what was then a recruitment center in the Men’s Gym. His naval career included serving as Executive Officer during the Battle of Okinawa; Commander of Amphibious Group one and keeper of Military War Diary during the Korean War; and Commander, U.S. Navy Reserve. Professor McNeil received four Battle Stars for his duty on board USS Achernar, USS New York, and MS Stephen Field, and retired from the military after serving as commander of the Underwater Demolition Team in the Navy Reserves. 

After returning home from his service to San Diego, where he had moved with his parents prior to the war, Professor McNeil taught at a combination junior-senior high school that he helped to establish in 1947, and wrote instructional materials for local school districts. His students were from families who had migrated west during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, as his family had moved from Iowa to find better opportunities during the Great Depression.

In his teaching, McNeil often focused on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 that sought to prevent the atrocities that took place during the Second World War from happening again. The document also represented a guarantee to basic human rights including the right to work in just favorable conditions; the right to education and the benefits of cultural freedom and scientific progress; and the right to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental well-being.

At UCLA, McNeil presided as co-director of Teacher Education along with Professor Jesse Bond. Professor McNeil taught curriculum and instruction, specializing in the advancement of literacy, mathematics, and educational evaluation. In addition, his interest in the development of bilingual materials led him to work as a consultant with schools throughout the United States, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Professor McNeil was the author of “Contemporary Curriculum: In Thought and Action” (8th Edition. Hoboken: Wiley, 2014); “Curriculum: The Teacher’s Initiative (Pearson, 3 Edition, 2002) and “International Development: Challenge and Controversy” (Sentia Publishing, 2018).

Last year, UCLA alumnus Bill Roen and his wife Sue Roen established The Dr. John McNeil Fund to honor the emeritus professor of education on his 101st birthday. In 2019, the year of Professor McNeil’s 100 birthday and and the UCLA Centennial, he was honored at Los Angeles City Hall with a proclamation from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the entire L.A. City Council, as well as with a commendation from Congressman Ted Lieu. (The presentation by Councilmember Paul Koretz to Professor McNeil begins at 1:19.) 

When asked what he was most proud of in a 2018 UCLA interview, Professor McNeil said – “It’s more like… things I’m most grateful for,” he says. “It’s been the most wonderful experience. Even things that were disheartening – looking back on them, they were really something. 

“The people – that’s one thing I am grateful for at UCLA. It’s the humanity, it’s the people, that’s one reason I’m not too concerned about time. They contributed so much to my life, every one of them…”

“It’s been a wonderful voyage. It’s people, it’s opportunities, it’s imagination. It’s getting into heaven ahead of time.”

Professor McNeil is survived by his daughters, Heather Larkin, Lisbeth Ceaser, and Catherine McNeil; son Juan McNeil; grandchildren Cerena Ceaser and Donald and Kyle Larkin; and great- grandchildren Craig (’21, B.A., Economics) and Ryan Larkin. An announcement will be forthcoming for a celebration of Professor McNeil’s life in the coming months. 

To submit a tribute for Professor John McNeil, visit this link

Photo by Sebastian Hernandez, UCLA