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Obituary of Daniel F. McNeil

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Daniel (Dan) F. McNeil Jr., age 101, passed away peacefully surrounded by family on May 30, 2024 after a brief illness. Dan died as he had lived, with grace and courage, strong in his faith and supported by the family he nurtured and loved. 


Dan was born in Cortland on January 14th, 1923 to Daniel F. McNeil, an engineer, and Anna Colgan McNeil, a school teacher. While Dan’s parents had been well off prior to the Great Depression, that security was only a memory for Dan as a child. During those hard times, Dan learned the lessons of tenacity, resilience, and most of all, how to laugh in the face of adversity, a talent he displayed at every crossroads, during war and peace, prosperity and hardship, throughout his long life.

Dan graduated from St. Mary’s School of Cortland and in 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought in General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army division, serving in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany until the end of World War II. Like many members of the greatest generation, Dan took advantage of the G.I. Bill; he enrolled in the first graduating class at Le Moyne College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Relations in 1951. In one of many full-circle moments in his life, Dan returned to Le Moyne College in 2021; in honor of his many contributions and achievements, he was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters.

During his college years—in what would be both a lifetime philosophy and a practice—Dan learned how to turn talent into joy and joy into opportunity. Dan joined his brother John, a classically trained musician, as a member of The John McNeil Orchestra. They toured the Central New York region playing be-bop, swing, jazz, and the music of the big-band era. Borne of the need support themselves and their parents, the brothers entertained audiences with their music and shared memories to last a lifetime.

Though it would not be accurate to describe Dan McNeil as someone who settled down, after graduation, Dan and John founded McNeil Music, which became, over the next sixty years, the cornerstone of an extremely successful career. In one small entry in a long record of generosity, Dan made sure that any child who needed a musical instrument would have one to play, regardless of their circumstances. Eventually, Dan would turn the business over to his brother and begin a new venture. In 1988, at the age of 64, Dan co-founded McNeil Development, with his son David, developing and managing real estate in Central New York. For Dan, work was a creative, intellectual challenge that invigorated him; in fact, on the day he died, he was still discussing with his son David various business issues and ideas, and he was doing so with the same incisive energy and insight that he brought to so much of his life. 

Certainly, Dan’s business acumen was one ingredient of his success, but only one. Dan never forgot what it felt like to need a job or how hard it could be to make ends meet; he treated his employees with dignity, cared for his customers like friends, and invested in his community so that, as he flourished, so would those around him. For Dan, material wealth was a tool not an end, meant to be used to make things grow and to extend the blessings of life to others, particularly those in need. Dan was especially invested in ideas and organizations that foster a better life in Cortland and Central New York. He founded The Dan and Rose McNeil Foundation to support music in the Cortland community, with a focus on the SUNY Cortland Choral Union and College-Community Orchestra.  He was a passionate supporter and member of the Cortland County Family YMCA; he was also a generous patron of St. Mary’s School and Church, and St. Margaret’s Church of Homer.

Beyond Dan’s commitment to philanthropic work, much of which he did without fanfare or recognition, he was also an active leader to a wide variety of organizations. Dan served as Director Emeritus of the Racker Center, as the President of the Cortland Rotary Club, as the Chairman of the Board of Dime Federal Savings and Loan, and he was a founding member of Newman Hall at SUNY Cortland. These are just a few of the leadership roles Dan McNeil served in a lifetime of service to the community. Dan was quick to note that this was a mutual relationship; he credited the people of Cortland for inspiring him to serve.

Of all the many gifts that Dan McNeil enjoyed in his life, he described his wife Rose Valentine as the greatest asset and blessing. They met in their hometown of Cortland, danced together at the San Rocco lodge, and in 1954 they married. Rose was also a child of the Depression, so it was with great pride that they were able to send all of their six children to college, four of whom earned advanced degrees; they showered their seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren with all the fun and love they had to give. For 64 years Rose would be Dan’s dance partner, his friend, and his inspiration; her faith, her unconditional love, and dependability helped Dan to build a life they were both proud of. 

Dan McNeil would have laughed at the idea that he was a Renaissance man; he would have deflected that compliment with a wry look or a joke about being the son of a “tin-knocker.” However, he was fueled by an intense curiosity about the world around him; he was successful in business, loved music, literature, philosophy, and the arts, was devoted to his country, his community, and of course, his family; and he felt as passionately about the health of the body as he did about the life of the mind. At the age of 45, he learned to swim, eventually becoming a member of the U.S. Master Swimming Association and competing in meets throughout the United States and in Canada. He swam every day until only recently. Certainly, swimming helped Dan to stay fit and flexible, but it became so much more than that over the years. Dan took great pride and pleasure in teaching others to swim, especially older adults. With characteristic optimism and kindness, Dan would reach out and help them to wade into the water; he’d teach them to float, to trust their own strength, and to swim in the deep end. Swimmers, like long distance runners, are often imagined to be solitary loners; but for Dan McNeil, swimming was about building up confidence in others; it was an opportunity to share the absolute joy of being alive, a feeling made manifest every time he got in the water. Mind, body, spirit: it’s what St. Ignatius of Loyola—founder of the Jesuit order, and also a renaissance man—described as “cura personalis,” the care of the whole person.

While his brother John, a concert-level pianist, was the lead in the orchestra, Dan was in the back on percussion—keeping the beat, holding all the strains of the music together. In many ways, that’s what Dan did for all of his 101 years. For his family, his friends, for those who respected and admired him, he was the steady presence of faith, hope, and love in a world that sometimes struggles to achieve such harmony. Dan McNeil modeled what it means to be a success, to live with grace and humility, to be a whole person; shortly before he died, he reflected, “I want to live as long as I can to be in service to mankind.” By any measure, he did just that.

Dan is predeceased by his loving wife Rose (Valentine) McNeil, his parents Daniel and Anna (Colgan) McNeil, and his brother John (wife Henrietta) McNeil.   Dan is survived by his children Daniel (Danielle) McNeil III, Peter (Sherry Cobb) McNeil, Paul (Soterios Johnson) McNeil, Anne (Jeff Chambers) McNeil, Mary McNeil, David (Christine) McNeil, and 7 grandchildren, 2 great grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. 

Calling hours will be Thursday June 6 at 3pm to 7pm at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church, 14 Copeland Ave. Homer, N.Y.  A mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at the same location on June 7 at 11am.  Interment will follow at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Cortland, NY. 

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