A father figure to some, "grandfatherish" to many, mentor, teacher, friend and source of lighthearted yet sincere inspiration to all.
That's how Pottstown High School students and staff described a powerful force in their lives - Master Sgt. Don "Sarge" MacNeil.
MacNeil -- an Air Force Jr. ROTC instructor at Pottstown Senior High School for the last 17 years -- died unexpectedly at his Philadelphia home on Tuesday.
Today, fittingly on Veterans Day, he would have turned 72 years old.
On Thursday, hundreds of folks gathered in Pottstown High School's auditorium to remember, honor and mourn the loss of a man who obviously earned their respect and gratitude.
"Sarge was more than just a teacher," said Amber Lichtley, a member of the Pottstown graduating class of 2012. She’s in her fourth year of JROTC and will enter the U.S. Army National Guard after high school.
"He taught us the importance of teamwork," said Jessica Kopack, MacNeil's former student at Pottstown and a Temple University student who plans to join the U.S. Army. "He taught us with a smile on his face every day ... The world needs more people like him."
Pottstown High School Principal Stephen Rodriguez said MacNeil became his friend the moment they met.
Within seconds of seeing MacNeil at school each day, "I'd have a smile on my face," Rodriguez said.
MacNeil's wife of 37 years, Christine, was presented a U.S. flag that was flown over Pottstown and Pottsgrove high schools prior to Thursday's ceremony. She clutched it in her arms, bent forward and obviously grieved its connection to her loss.
Many folks at the ceremony wiped tears from their eyes while MacNeil's sons spoke of their dad.
"He's kept me on track ... my best friend," said Steven MacNeil.
Allen MacNeil said, "We are humbled by what we've heard tonight," and asked the audience to celebrate his father's life.
"I'm truly grateful to be here with you," Spencer MacNeil told folks at the ceremony. "My dad has left a great legacy here. The legacy is now entrusted in you."
'He Touched People's Lives'
A tribute to Master Sgt. Donald MacNeil, who made a positive impact on countless Pottstown area students and people around the world.
- November 4, 2011
You didn't have to know Don MacNeil for very long to learn of his passion.
“Give kids a chance and they can do anything," he said in August.
On Monday, MacNeil demonstrated that belief while he taught students in Pottstown Senior High School's Air Force Jr. ROTC program -- which he helped establish over 16 years ago.
The next morning, he died suddenly at his home in Philadelphia.
Now, Pottstown high school faculty and students struggle to cope with their loss and remember MacNeil's way -- often funny but with clear, no-nonsense direction -- of leading them down the right path.
"He just was a fantastic human being," said Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James “Jake” C. Porter. "I (feel) blessed to have spent time with him."
Last year, Porter became a JROTC instructor at Pottstown High School. A short time later, Porter earned an outstanding instructor with merit award.
“I owe a lot of that to (MacNeil),” Porter said in August. “Don took me under his wing and showed me the ins and outs.”
On Friday, Porter talked of MacNeil's remarkable 30-year teaching career and the school's loss.
"It was a complete shock to all of us," he said of MacNeil's death. "People are shocked and saddened at the loss."
MacNeil devoted his life to helping others -- primarily students, Porter said.
"He obviously loved what he did ... It does my heart a measure of good ... that he was able to pursue his life with passion," Porter said. "That's something that's pretty special ... the way he touched people's lives."
MacNeil would have been 72 years old November 11 -- Veteran's Day.
According to his obituary, "Donald was the longest tenured Jr. ROTC instructor worldwide. Mr. MacNeil was retired from the Air Force with 20 years of service as a Master Sergeant."
Pottstown School District Director of Community Relations John J. Armato on Friday said MacNeil's death is "a tremendous blow" to the school's student body and staff.
Plans are being finalized to hold a memorial service for MacNeil at the high school, 750 North Washington Street in Pottstown, on November 10, Armato said.
"(MacNeil) clearly changed the lives of thousands of people," Armato said.
And those people will likely carry forward and grow MacNeil's vision -- to help others reach their full potential.
“We teach them teamwork, coordinated effort and listening,” MacNeil in August said of instructing students. “If it were up to me, every student would go into JROTC ... It would give them a good sense of values … to start believing in themselves.”
Read MacNeil's full obituary.
Read more about MacNeil and Pottstown High School's JROTC program:
- Jun 28, 2011
- Sep 9, 2011
- Sep 9, 2011
- Sep 9, 2011
- Sep 9, 2011
Related Topics: Air Force Jr. ROTC, Don MacNeil, Donald MacNeil Obituary, Donald MacNeil Philadelphia, JROTC, John J. Armato, Pottstown PA, Pottstown School District Director of Community Relations John J. Armato, Pottstown Senior High School's Air Force Jr. ROTC, and Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James “Jake” C. Porter