Happy Birthday, Margaret McNeel!

Today, at the Family Life Center of the First Baptist Church in Cross Plains, there is a celebration of the 80th birthday of a very special lady, Margaret Ann McNeel. I know that a lot of REHupans and other REH fans will be here in spirit as we honor one of the founders of Project Pride and Howard Days.

By 1988, some of the citizens of Cross Plains recognized a need for citywide clean-up and beautification. Margaret McNeel and Roylene Wilson decided to do something about it, and they talked John and Bettye Sue Adams, and Gene and Betty Greenwood, into going with them to a meeting of a beautification group in Baird. They came back from that meeting inspired, and the end result was the formation of Project Pride, a non-profit organization with the avowed purposes of “keeping Cross Plains a clean, attractive, and developing community and … preserving and documenting the history and heritage of the area.” Early projects included painting some of the downtown buildings and placing barrel planters along Main Street. Then the group learned that Dr. I.M. Howard’s old home was for sale. They knew that more and more visitors had been coming to Cross Plains because of Robert E. Howard (notably, the visit of ten members of REHupa in 1986, by mayoral proclamation the very first “Robert E. Howard Day” in Cross Plains), so several members of Project Pride, including Margaret Ann, put up the money to make a down payment on the house, with the goal of restoring it and turning it into a museum.

In that effort, REHupans pitched in with donations and publicity, and I even made the drive up from Houston to help with a couple of work days to clean the place up. (Okay, maybe I wasn’t all that much help, but my intentions were good.) From that time on, REHupa and Project Pride established an enduring relationship of friendship and cooperation. It wasn’t long before Project Pride established Robert E. Howard Days as an annual tradition in June, with REHupans helping out by attending, and eventually providing programming for the event.

Margaret Ann was a steady presence through all of this, particularly in organizing the volunteers who staff the Howard House and in preparations for the Friday night banquets. But Margaret and her daughter Susan never really compartmentalized — they were everywhere, helping with everything. In the past few years, though, Margaret’s presence has been missed, as health problems exacerbated by the December 2005 wild fires that swept through Cross Plains forced her to cut back her activities.

Another of Margaret’s contributions to Robert E Howard fans has been her willingness to share her knowledge of Cross Plains history, and her collection of historical photographs. My guidebook, Robert E. Howard in Cross Plains, and Mark Finn’s biography, Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, both benefitted greatly from Margaret’s assistance. Margaret and Susan have also gone out of their way over the years to introduce me to people who have interesting stories to tell about Cross Plains and the Howards. It was they, for instance, who introduced me to Hester Hounshell, who astounded Glenn Lord, Patrice Louinet, and me with the photo of REH and Patch standing at the front gate of his home.

Margaret Ann Clark was born on January 3, 1931, to Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) and Jesse Mae Adams Clark. Her father was a farmer and for some years operated a grocery store; her mother worked at Higginbotham’s General Merchandise. Margaret graduated from Cross Plains High School in 1948, and on June 3 of that year married Carl Fred (“Pat”) McNeel. They had two children, Carl Fred III (1949-2000), and Susan Ann (born 1955), who has demonstrated the same commitment to serving the Cross Plains community that her mother has displayed. Pat operated an oil-field supply company for a number of years before ill health caused him to turn, in 1967, to running an insurance business. Margaret Ann worked with him in the insurance office until his death in 1985, at which time she sold the business to Gene Greenwood, but continued to work in the office until she finally retired in 2007.

Margaret Ann McNeel exemplifies the kind of life of service that makes the Project Pride motto, “A Caring Community,” no empty slogan. She has cared enough to give abundantly of her time and talents to make her town a nicer place to live and work, and not only Cross Plains, but we Robert E. Howard fans, have benefitted greatly from all she has done. So as I join Robert E. Howard fandom in saluting and celebrating the life of this wonderful lady, I’ll also urge everyone to try to emulate her spirit of service in your own community. As Margaret Ann and all the other dedicated volunteers of Project Pride have shown, each of us has it in us to make the world a little bit better every day.

Happy Birthday, Margaret Ann! And may there be many more!