Brenda McNeil, 71

Sports fan, owned McNeil Financial Group

Opinion: Obituaries

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Born in rural central Pennsylvania and raised in a house without running water, Brenda B. McNeil arrived in the Chicago area in 1969 to coach girls tennis and field hockey at Morgan Park Academy. Still known then by her maiden name, Brenda Joyce Brown, she was a couple years out of Penn State and brought with her several state high school championships from Delaware, where she taught and coached for three years at Wilmington's Tower Hill School. 

Ms. BJB, as she was also known, quickly became a student favorite at the South Side private school. She built highly competitive tennis and hockey programs at Morgan Park before leaving teaching in the early 1970s to start a family. Settling in south suburban Palos Park, she transitioned into a career in financial planning and sales. She later helped launch the Chicago area offices of A.L. Williams & Associates, and for more than a decade worked in commission sales positions in the insurance and financial services industries.

A former varsity softball player at Penn State, she coached youth T-ball, baseball, soccer and tennis while living in Palos Park and was a key organizer of the village's first organized youth soccer league. She also volunteered as a park district tennis instructor.

As a young woman, she was a regular horseback and motorcycle rider and for a time during the early 2000s commuted to work in Forest Park on a black Honda scooter. Behind the wheel, she had a lead foot and a taste for sports cars. As a young teacher, she traded a Ford Mustang on an Austin-Healy Bugeye Sprite and collected three traffic tickets during the first week she owned a Datsun 240Z.

Divorced in 1986, she moved to the Oak Park area a short time later and was a morning regular at the long-defunct Oak Park Avenue diner Jamie's, and when that restaurant closed moved on to George's. She was also a frequent visitor to the old wood-paneled front bar at Winberie's, where she cheered on the Bulls while drinking a bottle or two of raspberry-flavored Original New York Seltzer water and wearing a very pink satin Bulls ball cap. More recently, she established herself as a breakfast regular at Al's Grill on Madison Street and her Chicago sports enthusiasms, always strong and well-informed, centered on the White Sox and Blackhawks. She watched the 2015 Cup-clinching game with her son and daughter-in-law at FitzGerald's and in May attended the retirement ceremonies for Paul Konerko's number at Sox Park.

After arriving in Oak Park, she began working as a loan officer for a Hinsdale-based residential mortgage brokerage, and after learning the trade took a position managing the Westchester office for an upstart mortgage broker operation. In the early 1990s, she obtained her own brokerage license and went to work for herself. Operating from home — first from her apartment and later a North Boulevard condominium — she met most of her clients at a booth inside George's, and staffers at the restaurant regularly took calls and messages on her behalf. In the mid-1990s, she opened an office for McNeil Financial Group Inc. on Lake Street and soon moved to offices on Circle Avenue in Forest Park. She eventually operated from offices inside a commercial building purchased on Madison Street in Forest Park. 

From the late 1990s to her retirement in 2008, she employed dozens of loan officers, including her sister and close friend, Priscilla Bruce, and at different times opened satellite offices in Chicago, Lake in the Hills, and the south suburbs. She also put two sons through college. An active member of Oak Park's Biznet organization for small business owners, she was a vocal advocate for the mortgage brokerage industry though several statewide organizations.

Visitors to her offices in the early 2000s were likely to find her mother, Anne A. Brown, sitting on a couch and passing the day with her daughters. McNeil Financial had a decidedly family vibe. She supported her mother late in her life as she suffered increasingly debilitating symptoms of Alzheimer's and also helped support her sister, Priscilla. They drove matching Volvos, wore similar jackets, used the same kind of Cross ballpoint pen, and could usually be found in one another's company: Peas of a pod.

When Priscilla was diagnosed early this year with congestive heart failure, Brenda served as her principal nurse and aide for several months while Priscilla prepped for open-heart surgery. While doctors were hopeful about the outcome of that surgery, it was not a success and Priscilla died from complications at West Suburban Hospital in March. Brenda spoke often of the pain she felt in losing her sister, and on the night of July 8, two weeks after returning from Priscilla's memorial service in Pennsylvania, Brenda died of a heart attack inside her Forest Park home. She was 71.

Brenda McNeil is survived by her two sons, Timothy and Brett (Lindsay), two sisters, and five nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held this Sunday, Aug. 16, inside Cheney Mansion, 220 N. Euclid Ave. in Oak Park. An open house will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. and the service will begin at 5. A reception will follow at the Oak Park home of Brett McNeil and Lindsay Koriath. For information about the service or to contact the family, please write to brettmcneil@gmail.com.

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Ed Pickart from Forest Park, IL  

Posted: August 16th, 2015 8:32 PM

This is part of a tribute I was able to give at Brenda's memorial service. -- My first job interview right out of college was for a technical position that was frankly a bit above my abilities at the time. The manager Ben asked me about my resume. I'd been in the army before college, and had traveled a bit around Europe on my own. He had lots of questions about my experiences and opinions. We never once talked about the position I was interviewing for. I got the job ?" which surprised me. Years later I asked him about that interview, and how we never once talked about the job. He said he saw me as a traveler. He said a traveler is a special kind of person who could meet life and, whatever happens, figure out a way to move through. Traveling isn't easy and it often doesn't go the way you plan. What matters, he said, is that you are in the moment, that you value the experience and do what it takes to keep moving ahead. To travelers both success and failure are temporary, both are equally important and neither really stops them. Years later I moved to Oak Park and met Brenda McNeil. Pretty quickly I recognized that Brenda was a traveler ?" approaching life in that way Ben talked about. Over the years she regaled me with stories of her life as a girl on the farm; her amazing mother; her experiences as a teacher and coach; as a mother herself. And as a business woman, building a business from scratch that truly helped thousands of people, including me and members of my family. I really saw her as a mentor. She had a sign on her desk: "Be where you are". That nails it. It's a big part life if you are doing it right. I learned that from her. She met life with that traveler's eye. She was truly a "self-made woman". She was a fierce advocate for her friends and she embraced the world around her. It wasn't always easy, and often didn't go as planned, but I think she nailed it. I deeply admire her for that. And I miss her.

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