PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Volunteering as a timer at last week’s USSA Junior XC Olympics may very well be the hardest thing Dr. Mary Neal has ever done.
It’s not that the work itself was especially difficult; she has timed scores of competitive Nordic events.
It wasn’t even the fact that she traveled to Presque Isle from her home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on a broken ankle compliments of a backcountry skiing accident two weeks ago.
For Neal, being in northern Maine brought a firsthand reminder of the split second nine months ago when her family’s life changed forever.
On June 21, 2009, Neal’s son William “Willie” Neal was killed while roller skiing when he was struck from behind by a car driven by 18-year-old Erik Lundquist of Fort Fairfield.
In December, Aroostook County District Attorney Neale Adams determined Lundquist did not commit “gross deviation” warranting a manslaughter charge, and no charges were pressed.
“Coming out here was very, very difficult,” Mary Neal said Saturday afternoon after the final competition at the Nordic Heritage Center. “None of us really wanted to come.”
In addition to Neal, her children Eliot and Betsy attended the race, skiing for the Rocky Mountain Team.
“But my two middle kids qualified for the junior national team, and for the junior skiers this is a big race,” she said. “My husband and I did not want them coming alone or without our support.”
Over three days of competition, Neal watched skiers from around the country race against her home region’s team and could not help but think about what could have been.
“It was difficult to watch the races,” Neal said. “A lot of the second-year older junior skiers skied with Willie for a number of years, and I know most of them [and] it was very difficult not seeing him there.”
Despite that loss, Neal said, her family chooses to focus on the life Willie had and the effect he made on his fellow athletes and community.
“Willie has been a role model for all of our kids, for us and for so many people,” Neal said. “His inspiration for countless people throughout this country is remarkable.”
Willie Neal was named to the Maine Winter Sports Center Regional Biathlon Team in May 2009, and had won eight individual state Nordic racing titles during his four years racing for Jackson Hole High School. He was training at the Maine Winter Sports Center with hopes of qualifying for the 2010 U.S. Junior World Cham-pionship biathlon team.
Her son, Neal said, was passionate about two things — skiing and making a difference — and he made an impact in both arenas.
“Willie felt each one of us had the privilege and responsibility to make a difference and inspire other people,” Neal said. “He felt we can all make a difference and that change begins with each one of us as individuals.”
Willie, she said, lived that example.
His passion and dedication to the dangers of climate change led him to develop and propose policy changes in his hometown, which enacted “no idling” laws, and convinced Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to take waste reduction measures in his own offices including using less paper and eliminating the use of plastic bottles.
Willie Neal’s parents have built on that model, creating the Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund, advocating, “Be the Change.”
“Willie encouraged people not so much to believe as he did, but to think and make conscious choices,” Neal said. “He also recognized it will be the young people who are the ones who will change the world.”
Since Willie Neal’s death, a number of young people from California to Maine have taken up his environmental causes, Mary Neal said.
Since June, Neal and her family have dealt with their loss as best they can, with Mary Neal saying it has never been easy.
“Were it not for the responsibility of raising our other children I would not get out of bed,” Neal said. “But God gave us the privilege and responsibility to raise our other children.”
Neal fully intends to raise her children in a manner that will not leave them bitter over anything in the past — notably the death of their brother.
“One can only hope they can use that experience to propel themselves into the future,” she said. “And use it as a reason to always strive to make it a better future for all.”
There are tangible reminders of her son’s death all around the Nordic Heritage Center, including the bright yellow Maine Department of Transportation signs advocating “Share the Road” with a silhouette of a roller skier.
“Those signs are there because of Willie,” Neal said. “We all need to learn to share the roads and the world.”
She and her family are staying with the family of Willie Neal’s girlfriend while in northern Maine and decided to make a small pilgrimage to the crash site.
“Our sense of overwhelming loss and emptiness is beyond description. … Our lives will never be the same,” Neal said. “Going to the place he was hit was very difficult, but what we realized is that is not where Willie is.”
It would be impossible, Neal said, not to think of Lundquist and his involvement in her son’s death and the state’s decision not to file charges.
“The lack of investigation into the accident and lack of follow-through has been very disappointing and disheartening,” she said.
While there has been no contact between the two families, Neal does hope Lundquist, himself, could somehow benefit from the tragedy.
“I would hope he would look at what happened and use it as a way to think about how he could change his life to make a difference in the world around him,” she said. “He lived and was given a second chance, I just hope he uses his life to make positive changes.”
That’s something Neal said she and anyone who knew Willie have set as a goal.
“I am responsible each day to make a difference for someone,” she said. “Even if it’s just smiling to make someone’s day.”
Information on the Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund is available at www.wnealenvirofund.org.