“Tough as nails, gentle as a feather.” There are many ways to sum up our friend’s character, personality, and essential qualities, but that little aphorism works for me.
Carolyn and I became colleagues and soon-to-be close friends in the autumn of 2004, when she signed on to serve as project manager for what ultimately became ABC-Clio’s 21-volume World History Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA, 2011). Neither of us could foresee the obstacles and frustrations that lay ahead as we labored to give shape and substance to this massive work. Those challenges, however, allowed us to forge a bond that transcended simple collegiality. That friendship, on my part, was based on a deep respect for her many strengths, chief of which were her commitment to excellence and, at the same time, a profound empathy that allowed her to understand and allow for human frailties. Whenever the disappointments of undelivered essays and other forms of missed deadlines proved more than mildly vexing, Carolyn was there to counsel patience and understanding. She was also there to offer constructive criticism and to argue forcefully but always in a collegial manner for positions that she believed were correct. Her folksy manner did not obscure a sharp intellect and a sure command of our discipline. Because of her strong advocacy, the encyclopedia’s coverage of gender in world history is second to none. Examples of the manner in which she made this a better work can be multiplied many times over, but it suffices to note that her contributions to this multi-year project became so fundamental to its successful completion that our publisher, Ron Boehm, rightly named her associate general editor.
In like manner, Carolyn’s services to the World History Association were significant and fruitful. Because of her first career as a contract manager for the U. S. Corps of Engineers and as someone who, in so-called retirement, went on to earn a Ph.D. in world history under the tutelage of Jerry Bentley at the University of Hawai’i, Carolyn was eminently suited to serve as the WHA’s Treasurer, an office to which she was elected for several consecutive terms. Her stewardship of the WHA’s meager resources and her wise advice in times of both crisis and good fortune equally redounded to the association’s benefit.
Following years of active volunteer service to the WHA, this woman of many talents and apparently inexhaustible energy embarked on another career–a lecturer in world history at Arkansas Tech University. On-line student evaluations strike a number of similar tones: “She is a great teacher in Gender in History and loves to help people understand everything!”; “Show her effort and she’ll do her best to make you do your best.” ;” “Amazing Professor….a memorable experience.”; “She loves history but is not boring with it.”; “Dr. Neel is a funny and sweet professor. She is very helpful…if you are struggling in her class do not hesitate to tell her.”; “She is very helpful and wants you to pass!”; “She is an amazing funny teacher and you just have to love her….Her humor is sure to keep you awake in class”; and (my favorite) “This woman is funny! She is like a grandma with a sarcastic side.” Anyone who has taught for a reasonable period of time knows that students tend to have fairly accurate malarkey meters (but Carolyn would have preferred that I use a more earthy term). They can sniff out phonies pretty quickly. The fact that these students easily perceived her command of her subject as well as her warmth, wit, compassion, and eagerness to be there for others speaks well of both them and her. Those of us who knew, loved, and admired Carolyn are not surprised.
For many years, Carolyn Neel was a fixture at WHA conferences, where she joyfully joined in to help wherever she was needed, and this despite her failing health over the past half decade and more and, with it, an increasing immobility. I remember well her grit at the WHA conference at Queen Mary College, University of London in 2008. Carolyn wished to join several of us at a pub that was more than a quarter of a mile away. When I offered to summon a taxi, she declined transportation and insisted on a slow and probably painful walk to and from the pub. That is tough. But what else does one expect of a fifth-generation Texan?
Within minutes of meeting Carolyn, one quickly learned that she was a proud Texan, who was happy to recount stories of her ancestors and kin–the good, the bad, and the in-between, and all of them, like her, colorful, independent, resilient, and oh-so-human. A favorite for many of her enchanted listeners were the stories of her aunt who carried a pistol in her purse but always acted the part of the well-bred Texas lady. Well, Carolyn did not pack heat in her purse (well, I think not), but she was always the gentle, well-bred person with an iron backbone and a willingness to serve and help. She was there when she was needed, and she delivered. One riot, one ranger. That piece of Texas lore might be apocryphal, but one crisis, one Carolyn surely was the truth.
It is fitting that two persons she especially loved and with whom she happily served for a number of eventful years should have the last words concerning this amazing lady. I refer to Jackie Wah, the WHA’s former administrative assistant and conference coordinator, and Winston Welch, the WHA’s former executive director.
From Jackie Wah, at the former WHA headquarters in Honolulu:
“Carolyn will be remembered for touching so many lives with her feisty spirit and her strong compassionate nature.
Winston and I were lucky to have her as a mother hen. We are two very sad chicks.”
From Winston Welch, from the former WHA headquarters in Honolulu:
“Both Jackie and I, and others who knew Carolyn in Hawaii, are devastated by the loss of such a wonderful colleague and beloved friend. As one of the WHA’s main stalwarts, especially as its treasurer and conference chair for many years, Carolyn guided, protected, and advanced the organization.
Carolyn also did the same for us personally–always offering a steady hand, mentoring our development, giving wise counsel, and fiercely watched over us with love and affection. Carolyn was an amazing ally and force of nature, never afraid to take on bullies or bad behavior. Carolyn reinforced in me the need to speak up for what was not right, and not to get too disheartened when setbacks occur, as inevitably they may.
My professional and personal life will always be bettered by Carolyn’s influence and example, and I shall carry some of her wisdom and strength all my life.
I shall so miss our hours-long conversations late into the night. I’m not sure Carolyn ever actually slept, because she would get back to me at all hours of the day or night, and our conversations were about all facets of life.
I was always amazed at Carolyn’s ability to accomplish so much and wear so many hats simultaneously. Not only was Carolyn an accomplished scholar, editor, author, teacher, mentor, and all-around professional powerhouse, but most important, Carolyn was a wonderful human being who taught us about life and how to live and love.
Carolyn’s greatest of the many roles she played were as beloved wife of Scott, whose love story is for the ages, as mother to Alan, and then Melanie, whom she adored and treasured, as a dotting niece to Virginia, and as beloved hānai auntie for many of us–a term used in the Hawaiian culture that refers to the informal adoption of one person by another.
Today, as we bid aloha to Carolyn and each of us miss her enormously, we must remember that Carolyn’s spirit will always live in our hearts and is as near as a thought for us whenever we need advice, comfort or love.
I so, so appreciate the opportunity to have known Carolyn and to love her and be loved by her, and that message of love is what I will keep in my heart from our dearest, sweetest Carolyn.
Rest in peace, Dear Friend.