January 25, 2010
‘Papa John’ nurtured cultural exchange
Longtime chairman of Rotary student exchange program dies Tuesday at the age of 82
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Betty MacNeill holds the headdress of her husband, John’s, drum major dress uniform in their yard in Homer in this 2006 photo. John MacNeill died Tuesday.
Local residents remember John MacNeill Jr. for two of his greatest passions: Celtic culture and welcoming foreign exchange students to the Cortland area.
MacNeill, a Homer resident, died Tuesday at age 82.
For more than 35 years, MacNeill was chairman of the Inbound Student Exchange Committee for the Cortland Rotary Club.
He supervised the program, which sent local high school students to other countries and brought students from other countries to the Cortland area. It places one student in Cortland High School and one in Homer High School every year.
“It was so obvious that he loved what he did. He put his whole heart into it,” said Janis Martin, a Homer resident who has hosted three exchange students with her husband, Mark, through the Rotary program.
Many people knew MacNeill as “Papa John,” a name coined by the first foreign student his wife and he hosted, an Argentinean girl named Susana Zapata in 1973.
“She would introduce me to the incoming students as Papa John, and now the club people all call me Papa John,” MacNeill told the Cortland Standard in January 2008.
Janis Martin said MacNeill encouraged her family to host exchange students and helped them through the process.
Martin said the exchange students stayed with three families during the program, and that MacNeill would look out for them and help them with their problems.
“They all looked at him as a father or a grandfather figure, and he made them feel very at home,” Martin said. “He just touched so many hearts. He was an ambassador to our country, really.”
MacNeill and his brothers John, Arthur and Bob MacNeill had an interest in their Scottish heritage, and it influenced them to find ways to embrace it early in their lives.
The late Arthur MacNeill taught himself to play the bagpipes, Bob MacNeill began playing the drums and John MacNeill led marching bands as a drum major, said Dan MacNeill, the SUNY Cortland football head coach, who is Arthur MacNeill’s son and John MacNeill’s nephew.
The MacNeill brothers’ children and grandchildren adopted his love for traditional Scottish bagpipe music and dancing.
MacNeill’s wife, Betty, daughters Billie MacNeill and Claudia MacNeill Caretti, and granddaughter Vanessa Caretti all played in the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band at the Cortland Celtic Festival in 2006. MacNeill’s other grandchildren, Adam, Connell and Aurora MacNeill, performed with the Clough School of Highland Dance, a Cortland-based Scottish dancing program, during the program.
Dan MacNeill said he has fond memories of camping with his uncle in the Adirondacks as a child and attending Celtic celebrations with him.
But when he moved to Cortland from the Philadelphia area 13 years ago to become the Red Dragons’ head coach, he realized how immersed his uncle was in the community and the exchange program.
“The impact he’s had in a lot of ways is very vast,” Dan MacNeill said.
After attending a number of schools growing up, John MacNeill graduated from Homer Academy in 1944. He joined the U.S. Navy and served during the end of World War II in the Pacific Theater.
Following the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Cornell University in 1950.
After living and working in several areas of New York state, John MacNeill and his family settled in Homer, where he started his own engineering and surveying firm.
A private service for family members was held Saturday at the Homer Congregational Church.
The family will receive friends from 2 to 5 p.m. on Feb. 6, at the Wright-Beard Funeral Home, 9 Lincoln Ave., Cortland. A memorial services is also planned for the spring, but no date was available.
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