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Local People

By Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Dobbs

A man dressed in a black suit and tie, sits at a table reviewing documents inside an office space at a funeral home. His eyes attentively scan the pages in front of him while he holds an ink pen in his hand. After careful review, he prepares to sign papers that will change his life, and the lives of his loved ones, forever.

Thomas Jefferson High School Grad’s Career Takes Flight

Spenser Neel, a Pittsburgh native and 2009 graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School, waits inside the Jefferson Memorial Cemetery and Funeral Home, which was founded by his great grandfather Harry C. Neel in 1929. The business was passed down to his grandfather, John D. Neel, and is currently ran by his father, also Harry C. Neel, who is President and CEO. The cemetery and funeral home is owned and operated as a fourth-generation family enterprise and is one of the largest, privately owned cemeteries in the United States.

Photos of Neel’s great-grandfather, grandfather and dad are on prominent display in the entrance of the building, but it isn’t long after entering the establishment one might realize, their family is bound by much more than the daily business conducted at this location.

Framed photos and paintings from the World War II era, and aviation history photos line the hallways and staircases. All of them reveal a more detailed, and perhaps unexpected insight into the history of the Neel family.

Neel’s grandfather, John Neel, joined the Army Air Corps in 1944 and was a World War II B-25 pilot who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. Neel flew 52 combat missions and bombed a railroad bridge at Maribor, Yugoslavia, on April 12, 1945, during a mission in which one B-25 was destroyed and 17 were damaged. The Distinguished Flying Cross was established by Congress in1926 and is awarded to those serving in the Armed Forces, who distinguish themselves for heroism or outstanding achievement while participating in aerial flight.

John Neel was honored with a painting of himself depicting his heroic deeds during World War II, on the walls of the family business. It was in front of this image more than 75 years after his last flight that his his son Harry Neel, who joined the Navy in 1972 and spent six years as a naval aviator, would administer the oath for his grandson Spenser’s swearing in ceremony.

“Today was significant for a couple reasons,” said Neel. “I lost my grandfather close to 10 years ago. Despite, knowing he couldn't hear any of that, it had a lot of meaning and I know that if he was here today he’d be proud that I’m following in his footsteps, and my Dad’s footsteps.”

In addition to his grandfather, both of Neel’s parents,Harry and Marianne Neel have their civilian pilot’s licenses.

Neel contemplated his career options after he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics, and eventually decided to join the Navy. He called his father one day to inform him he wanted to join the Navy.

“It is certainly rewarding to have my son going to the United States Navy and most specifically into naval aviation,” said Neel. “It was a proud day for me without question. If I could do it all over again I would, but I can’t, so we pass the baton to the next generation. I'll be very proud to see Spenser go through OCS (Officer Candidate School), get commissioned and go through flight school to get his wings.”

Navy Talent Acquisition Group (NTAG) Pittsburgh Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Brandon Smith who was designated a Naval aviator in February 2004 at Whiting NAS in Milton, Florida. attended the swearing in ceremony.

“It was a privilege and honor to join this family, in a place special to them, to watch a third generation member of that family take the oath and enter military service,” Smith said. “The city of Pittsburgh should be rightfully proud of this family’s service to our country.”

The generations of the Neel family are connected through making the commitment to serve. That commitment is continuing into the future with the latest oath taken.

“This is a career that is going to ask more from me than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I can’t be more excited,” said Neel. “I want to do what my dad and grandpa did, and I think I’ll be good at it. I want to do something that would make my family proud, my wife proud if I were to ever have kids, would make them proud. I want to do something bigger than myself and I couldn't think of a better thing to do than go fly for the Navy.”

Established August 1, 2018, NTAG Pittsburgh is one of 26 Navy Talent Acquisition Groups. Their recruiting efforts span throughout parts of western Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Maryland.

Navy Recruiting Command consists of a command headquarters, three Navy Recruiting Regions, 26 NTAGs and 64 Talent Acquisition Onboarding Centers (TAOCs) that serve more than 1,000 recruiting stations around the world. Their mission is to attract the highest quality candidates to assure the ongoing success of America’s Navy.


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