Since moving to Amarillo in 1955, Helen Neal has become an integral member of the community. Retiring from a career in elementary education in 1983, she has continued to prove her commitment through various organizations and boards, such as the Amarillo College Foundation and mentoring at the North Branch Amarillo YMCA.
In her thirties, Helen was the first black woman to graduate from West Texas State University, earning a sociology degree in 1962. However, she had to settle for a teaching career because blacks were not being hired as social workers at that time, she says.
“It was go to school, come back and be a mommy and wife,” declares Helen, who helped establish Amarillo Opera’s Lift Every Voice concerts, which celebrate Black History Month. “I didn’t think about it very much. It was just here recently that a lot of people said, ‘You were the first. You braved the water,’ and all of that. But I really didn’t. I was an adult going back to school.”
Helen was named Woman of the Year in 2000 by Beta Sigma Phi and was NAACP’s 2010 Dr. R.W. Jones Freedom Fund Award recipient. “It should mean a lot to be recognized, but that’s not why I do it. I’d rather work in the background than be in the front. It’s not so I can be famous or anything,” she chuckles.
Helen, a nearly 60-year member of Johnson Chapel Ame Church, has four daughters with her late husband, Nathaniel “Nat” Neal, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In an alternate life, I would’ve been a… social worker because I think that’s why I volunteer.
The most famous or interesting person I’ve ever met is… Colin Powell, when he came here.
My go-to stress reliever is… to quilt by hand. My daughter and everybody else sew quilts by a machine, but I’m not comfortable at the machine.
My favorite most-quotable movie is… “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received is… stay in school and go to church.
My favorite bad-for-me-food is… ice cream. I can answer that one quickly!
If I had a time machine I would travel to… Egypt. There was a lot of going on when the world began.
Right now, I’m listening to… well right now it’s Christmas music. I like the Oldies in the ’40s and ’50s.
My friends and family call me… A long time ago I had a nickname. I was called Sunny. I got that in middle school probably.
My favorite meal to make from scratch is… Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. I used to make the turkey and dressing and potatoes – everything, peach cobbler, which I got to cook this time.
If I had an open plane ticket to anywhere, I would go to… Washington, D.C., again, because I didn’t get to see it good. I’d really like to go all the way up the East coast.
One of my favorite childhood toys was… a doll, I guess. All I ever had was a doll.
If I were a character in a book, I would be… one of the sisters in “Little Women.”
You may be surprised to know that I… like Elvis Presley’s music.
I know every word to the song… “Yield Not to Temptation.”
My celebrity crush is… a man that blew the saxophone during the Big Band days, but I can’t remember his name.
I’m secretly addicted to the TV series… none of them. There’s a lot in there that doesn’t need to be in there, just to make the picture sell.
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.