During nearly three decades as an educator, Major R. McNeil developed something of a reputation. He was known as open and accessible with students – while still expecting their best performance in and out of the classroom. He was pegged as innovative and ambitious by administrators – who responded by promoting him from job to job through the Cincinnati Public School system. “I wanted to be the leader,” said McNeil, now 73, and a 48-year resident of Kennedy Heights.

He started on that path early, growing up with seven siblings in Zanesville, Ohio. Sports, scouting, church and student government all provided opportunities for leadership. A high school guidance counselor suggested the military for his next step. “I remember him asking me if I wanted to go to the Navy, the Army, or the Ma-rines.” But McNeil wanted college – and choose historically black Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio. It was there, outside mostly white Zanesville, that he settled on education, inspired by a sister on the same path and African-American professors he respected. After a short, unsuccessful stint at the former Delco Products plant in Dayton – he was fired for not wearing the standard uniform – CPS came calling in 1968.

In quick succession, McNeil served as PE teacher at Samuel Ach Junior High; assistant principal at C.M. Merry Junior High, then Taft and Hughes high schools; then principal at Sawyer Junior High and finally, in 1979, Withrow High School. He had aspired to Withrow’s top job for several years – and so arrived with detailed plans for new initiatives:

  • At the end of school days, he stood at the front door and required each student to carry a book home. Students carrying books, he believed, had their hands too full for trouble.
  • During school days, he assigned security employees with golf carts and Polaroid cameras to be his eyes all over (and even beyond) the 27-acre campus. Pictures provided proof when students were not where they were supposed to be.
  • At football games, he stood in the same spot in the stadium – to see and be seen.

He launched a Partner in Education program, connecting students with corporations; an International Baccalaureate program, recruiting students from different countries; “Saturday School,” disciplining students with weekend lessons and community service; and school dances, providing supervised socialization on Friday nights. In all endeavors, McNeil said, he wanted to get to know his students. “Familiarity is a safety component,” he said. “People who know you can also predict you. If you can predict, you can position yourself to protect.” McNeil left Withrow in 1985 to serve in CPS administrative positions for the next decade. Then came 15 years as a corporate diversity consultant, first for Cincinnati-based Pope & Associates then with his own firm.

These days, McNeil devotes time to golf and yard work at the Davenant Avenue home where he and wife, Winona, raised daughter Megan Wallace and son Major III. Both remain active in community efforts, in Kennedy Heights and elsewhere.

Reflecting on his years in education and then diversity training, McNeil harkens back to childhood memories. He adopted a personal approach to his professions early on, he said, because he often felt overlooked as a black student in Zanesville’s mostly white schools. Young people, he said, often just want someone to notice them. “They know if you if you know them.”

By Patti Newberry

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