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Local youth mentor remembered as man who 'turned lives around'

By SOMMER HAMILTON

Eagle Staff Writer

Eagle photo/Patric Schneider

Children and staff of the Lincoln Recreation Center in College Station release balloons in memory of Neal Donovan at the conclusion of his funeral Monday afternoon at Rest-Ever Cemetery in Bryan. As the assistant supervisor of the Lincoln Center, Donovan mentored several hundred children each year and started the annual “Soul Food at Lincoln Recreation Center” fund-raiser.

Eagle photo/Patric Schneider

A funeral attendee pays tribute to Neal Donovan, who died Sept. 16 of complications from a brief illness. He was 42.

Eagle photo/Patric Schneider

Neal Donovan’s wife, Bethalyn, is consoled after the funeral. Friends and relatives shared stories during the two-hour funeral service Wednesday morning.

Tears and laughter filled the Lincoln Recreation Center on Wednesday as friends and family gathered to remember Neal Donovan as a role model, a father and, above all, a man of God.

More than 800 church friends, city employees and community members paid tribute to Donovan, 42, who was director of the Boys & Girls Club program in College Station for six years. He died Sept. 16 in Temple of complications from a brief illness.

Lincoln Center supervisor Lance Jackson said Donovan did just what a father should for the students in the Boys & Girls Club program: He loved them, disciplined them, hugged them and cried with them.

“He turned lives around,” Jackson said.

As the assistant supervisor of the Lincoln Center — a community center in central College Station at the site of a former school for African-Americans — Donovan mentored several hundred children each year and started the annual “Soul Food at Lincoln Recreation Center” fund-raiser.

Friends and relatives shared stories during the two-hour celebratory service Wednesday morning. They told of Donovan’s laughter and love as his favorite gospel songs filled the Lincoln Center gymnasium, which is adorned with portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Colin Powell and other African-American leaders known for striving to help their communities.

Former classmates highlighted Donovan’s accomplishments on the football field 20 years ago, when he was a Bryan High School varsity player. He later was a member of Baylor University’s 1980 Southwest Conference Cotton Bowl championship team.

Reading from a poem she wrote for her mentor — affectionately known by the children as “Mr. Neal” — Boys & Girls Club member Consolo Palmer stood before the crowd to share “how much we felt” about Donovan.

“I wish you knew that not a day will go by that we don’t think of you,” she said. “I wish you knew that our lives are so very incomplete without you here.”

Greg Banks, a member of Bryan High’s class of 1980, told the assembled students how much Donovan loved them. He shared with them the advice “Mr. Neal” would have sent them home with.

“He’d tell you to be respectful, to pick your head up, get your education ... and get God in your life,” said Banks, who said he and Donovan were like brothers. “You’ve got to respect him by carrying on the torch.”

Police closed the northbound lanes of Earl Rudder Freeway just after 1 p.m. to make way for the lengthy funeral procession as it continued to Rest-Ever Memorial Park in Bryan.

Donovan, a recipient of the Parks & Recreation Department’s Professionalism Award, was named after his grandfather, Robert C. Neal, a longtime educator in Bryan for whom Neal Elementary and Recreation Center are named.

His quick illness and death — Parks & Recreation Director Steve Beachy said Donovan had taken off just a few weeks of work — affects a family already strained with worry.

Donovan, wife Bethalyn and their three children have been helping Bethalyn’s sister battle breast cancer for the past couple of years. Beverly Ellis is under hospice care at home with the family. Donovan took shifts with his family helping make sure his sister-in-law was comfortable.

In an emotional gospel song that brought Bethalyn Donovan to her feet with her arms spread wide, soloist Berma Brown sang “Open the Flood Gates of Heaven.” Before the song, Brown asked that God rain down drops of “strength, comfort and peace” on Donovan’s family.

Jackson pointed during the celebration to the staff of the Lincoln Center and the children whose lives Donovan touched, saying they didn’t know when he first arrived six years ago how much they’d need him.

“God gives us these people, and what they do is put themselves inside of you,” Jackson said. “And God may have taken Mr. Neal away from us today, but he’s going to be with us tomorrow.”

A poem by Donovan, dedicated to the children of the Lincoln Center, appears in a booklet of poems, pictures and memories put together by his family.

“When I must go I leave behind so much for you to see,” he writes. “I’m sure that God will help you smile when you remember me.”

• Sommer Hamilton’s e-mail address is shamilton@theeagle.com.

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