When a friend’s son committed suicide, she told me she had read that people killing themselves want to kill at least one other person, likely the person closest to them.

When my father killed himself in 1950, he may not have killed anyone else — each survivor might wonder who was the other person he wanted to kill — but he rechanneled the lives of those left behind. We still live in those different channels 68 years later.

At age 10, I had been working for three years. When I finished my newspaper route, I often pedaled two miles back to the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune office to hang out. On cold nights, I might call my parents to come to the Trib and take my bicycle and me home. Nov. 20, 1950, was cold, so I called for a ride. Our next-door neighbor answered. She said, “Bobby, come home right away. Something terrible has happened.”

As I crossed the alley behind our house and rode my bike into our backyard, it entered my mind that the “something terrible” was that my father had killed himself. I have no clue why I thought that, have no recollection of any hints the pre-teen I was might have had of the impending act that would skew the lives of six people for good.

My sisters were 17, 15, 8 and 6. My mother had just turned 50. My father was 49.

All I can remember of the next two days was sitting on the heat vent in my bedroom, holding one of my father’s model railroad locomotives and crying. And crying out loud, “Why? Why? Why?” My sister, Ruth, 15, sometimes came in to comfort me.

“Why?” will never be answered.

My mother had to be in shock — her parents and my father’s mother, all in New England and difficult to contact from Missouri, were less than comforting — but she knew she was on her own. He had shot us from middle-middle class to middle poverty. The $6,037 he earned as a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri was gone. Mother had no savings. She had no income.

Still, she swung into action. She told us that others would look at us differently when we returned to school after the funeral. She was right. She told us, “Don’t say your father killed himself, tell people he died of a gunshot.” “If they know and ask why, say we don’t know what was troubling him.” In 1950, we hadn’t heard of “bipolar,” and “depression” meant the dirty ’30s, but the condition called “suicidal” was widely considered hereditary.

She pushed us hard to do well in school and plotted how to get each of us through college so we could become self-reliant. For me, she suggested a Navy ROTC scholarship. When I went to St. Louis for the first screening, my mother, by then a guidance counselor, knew the Navy would put me through psychological tests. She cautioned me about letting the officers know that my father had killed himself. They would immediately classify me as mentally ill, or at best susceptible to mental illness. They did get me to acknowledge the suicide, despite my best 17-year-old effort. My NROTC process ended there, though I can’t say it was because of the suicide.

Other than being seen differently by classmates at school, this is one of my oldest memories of the effects of growing up with no father. The Navy gave each of us a vial to fill with pee. I couldn’t. The last of the other guys leaving the bathroom saw me still at the urinal and said something like, “Didn’t your father teach you how to do that? Put your hand under running water. The pee will come right out.” I did, and it did. Not sure my father would have taught me that, but in any case he wasn’t there to give the lesson.

It’s not as if he had been a professional failure. He wrote a book about the Boston & Maine Railroad (“High Green & the Bark Peelers”), now part of Pan Am Railways, and he worked 17 years in newspapering. Besides High Green, he wrote “News Gathering and News Writing.” It was published in 1941, republished I don’t know how many times and for a long time (maybe yet) was the largest selling text in the world on beginning journalism. He also wrote “Editing the Small City Daily,” the largest-selling copy-editing text for several decades.

For 30 years or more, I was accepted anywhere in journalism just for being his son. By the managing editor of the Miami Herald, by the city editor of The Kansas City Star, by an assistant city editor of The Los Angeles Times, etc. The name Neal opened doors. And, or course, today two of my favorite things are newspapers and railroads.

One odd and long-lasting effect is that we three still surviving remember the event and its aftermath differently. We cannot agree on whether he shot himself in the head or in the heart. We are uncertain whether Ruth was the first to run to him after the shot. Mother told me he died with his head in Ruth’s lap as she sat on the floor crying. We’ll never know. Ruth died 102 weeks later, at 17, in a car crash six miles east of Columbia.

I may have gone farther toward forgiving him than have my sisters, but I don’t call him “Dad,” though at least one sister does. He is “our father” to me. “Dad” is too endearing.

One sister reminds me that, given our history as fatherless and poor we all came out OK. My oldest sister was a cellist (New Orleans Symphony, Radio City Music Hall), then an advertising writer (Duz soap, Mattel toys). My youngest sister became vice president for training at Manpower Inc. in Milwaukee. My other sister taught high school for a couple of decades, then opened an antiques mall and specialized in selling Steiff stuffed animals. The apple that is me didn’t fall far from the tree. I moved into the newsroom after delivering papers for 14 years, stayed for 20 years and then farmed for 35 years.

He left us without a father, but each of us had enough moxie to find our own way.

May other suicide survivors do so well.

Bob Neal is proud of his family for digging out of the morass of suicide. The experience has given all of us a gentler view of other people’s experiences.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: