My grandfather, Gilbert Neal, was born 111 years ago today, on March 1, 1898. He always said he “blew in with the first of March.” His life story is the stuff of family legend. He was born to a poor family on a hardscrabble farm near Gilbertsville, Kentucky, and was named after the town. His father, Sam Neal, was a bit of a ne’er-do-well who would come and go as he pleased. His mother, whom I never met, apparently was a stern woman. Ultimately, Grampa became responsible for providing for this mother and his three sisters — Vada, Verna, and Pearl.
Grampa never talked much about his childhood, but it is clear that his family had little as he was growing up. One year either Richard or Russell had a lower school assignment that required them to talk to a family member about the best Christmas gift they could remember receiving as a child. They asked Grampa, and he said “an orange.” He used to have a photo of his extended family, and it was a group of people — maybe 20 or so — sitting and standing in front of a rough wooden structure. The men wore what looked like homespun coats, shirts, and pants; the women wore long, high-collared dresses. If I recall the photo correctly, there was not a smile in the group, even among the children. Grampa went to a one-room schoolhouse and worked on a tobacco farm.
In 1913, at about the time of the great flood, he and his family moved from Kentucky to Akron, Ohio. At that time, the auto industry and the rubber industry were booming, and Sam Neal apparently hoped to find work for the tire companies. That did not work out, and three years later Grampa’s formal education ended at the seventh-grade level. I have a great picture of Grampa, his mother, and his three sisters — no surprise that Sam Neal is nowhere to be seen! — that I believe dates to the early Akron days, and they are a very grim-faced group. Although Grampa’s formal schooling ended early, he continued to pursue an education and began to compile, read, underline, and note what ended up as an extensive library of business and business law books.
In 1916 Grampa began working as a messenger boy for The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. He soon was transferred to the credit department of the company, and in 1917 he joined the newly formed Firestone Park Trust & Savings Bank, later to become The Firestone Bank. He became a bookkeeper, then a teller, then assistant treasurer and finally, in 1926, the treasurer of the bank. The Bank managed to survive the Great Depression and was the first institution in Akron that the federal government allowed to reopen after the Bank Holiday. It did so without any need of funds or other assistance from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Grampa remained extremely proud of that achievement to the day he died. Grampa became a director of the Bank in 1941, a vice president in 1942, executive vice president in 1945, and later President and Chairman of the Board of Directors. He retired in 1970, after working at the Bank for 53 years.
Grampa met Maude Brown in the 1920s, when she worked at the American Automobile Association office in Akron. They courted and were married in 1928. There is a terrific picture of them from that time, with Gramma wearing flapper-type shoes, dress, and hat and Grampa looking dapper in a suit. My mother Agnes Neal was born in 1930, and my Uncle Gilbert was born several years later. Gramma and Grampa were a happy couple, and he was devoted to her.
Grampa did not serve in the military in either World War I or World War II. He was the primary breadwinner for his family when American entered World War I, and he was 43 years old, with two children, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He did, however, serve as a Civil Defense official during World War II, and years later still had his white, doughboy-type helmet with “CD” stenciled on it.
By all accounts, Grampa was a very good banker. My parents’ friends often recounted what it was like to go to The Firestone Bank to ask for a business expansion loan, with Grampa carefully reviewing their books and then grilling them about the amount of the down payment, their collateral, their business plans, and their prospects. No doubt as a result of his childhood and experience in the Great Depression, he was very conservative about money. He would have been appalled at the lax lending and banking practices that have produced the credit crunch that we currently are experiencing. The country would have been better off if there had been more Gilbert Neals in our banking institutions!
After his retirement in 1970, Grampa and Gramma lived happily at their home on Chamberlain Road. Grampa had purchased shares of stock in The Firestone Bank over the years, and after his retirement the Bank was acquired by Banc One, which helped to make Grampa a wealthy man and allowed Grampa and Gramma to have a comfortable lifestyle. They had been married for 60 years when Gramma died in 1988 after suffering a stroke. Grampa lived for another nine years until his death on March 7, 1997, six days after his 99th birthday.
All of this is the factual record about Gilbert Neal, but it doesn’t say much about what he was like as a person, or why he was one of the most influential people in my life. In the next few days, I’d like to flesh out the record and try to answer those questions.