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Sudden Separation

By Art Goodrich

Anyone in the fire service understands that their mortality is under assault every time the tones drop.

You can be gone in a flash in a flashover, a collapse, a vehicle accident, a fall or in a less violent but every bit as insidious manner such as a heart attack.

It can be sudden and without warning and it leaves many to ask the question, “Why”?

My brother-in-law George was walking down the hallway of his house that morning, grabbed his chest and without saying a word, collapsed and died.


The Reverend George Neel and my sister, Judy spent their lives together after meeting at the 4Cs Café in Galva, Illinois, where Judy worked as a waitress and George would eat his meals there when he was in town.

A marriage that wasn’t supposed to be and then literally lasted a lifetime filled with each others’ constant companionship ended with George’s sudden, fatal heart attack.


When Judy and George met, Judy had been out of high school for a couple of years, had no desire to go to college, was living at home with the rest of us, while working at the café, until she figured out what lay ahead for her.

George was a truck driver for Andersen Windows at the time and was a single father raising three young boys; Jerry, Steven and Rod.

My dad was always an excellent judge of a person’s character and he had no problems with the relationship, but Mom was the polar opposite. She was absolutely opposed to Judy dating a trucker, because Mom had heard and believed all of the stories about truckers and their “runnin’ around”. From “having girlfriends in every town to their godless hard livin’ and lying”; Mom wasn’t going to have one of her girls dating one-let alone to marry one!

Mom and Judy’s fights were epic, but Judy was in love and would fight for it until she and George were married.

For awhile, they lived in a little town just west of us in a little apartment along the highway that went through Altona. It was the five of them making their lives together.

George continued to drive trucks for many years. In fact; I got to go with him a few times.

He was a big man; 6’3” tall and roughly 280 lbs. at the time. He had huge hands that would completely swallow the hand of others that he shook out of friendship. He was a gentle giant, whose voice though loud, was never menacing. He had a kind face, a Kentucky drawl and a big heart.

And he had stories; thousands of them. He had travelled millions of miles and had a story for every trip that he took in his truck.

Judy and George had one child together. Arthur Allen would join his three brothers. They named him after me and another brother-in-law at the time.

Back then, I didn’t give it much thought, but in later years, I realized the significance of the honor that they had bestowed upon me by naming a child after me.

George wanted off of the road. He was looking for a more “normal” life, where he could be home more. He decided to become a minister.

George got his divinity degree and soon found himself in front of his church members in a small Southern church. His calling would find him and Judy moving a couple of times, as his assignments changed.

The naked eye would not have seen George as a minister. In fact; you might not have known it even after talking to him for awhile. George did not push the religious aspects that filled his life. He didn’t punctuate his statements with religious pronouncements. When making a point, he didn’t rely on stories that were from the Bible. His “collar” was blue, through and through.

No; George liked to talk about family, fishing, politics-you know; normal stuff. If he felt like my soul needed saving, either he was quietly working on it behind the scenes or he knew that eventually I would find the way.

That’s why I loved and admired George so much.

He combined his own life experiences with a subtle teaching style that found him more like you and less like a man of God. His religion was the calming effect that you felt from occasional emotional circumstances.

When Dad was hospitalized in May of 1992, George and Judy came up to be with us. When it became clear that Dad was going to die, it was George who prepared Dad for his journey into eternity.

Then, one by one, we all said our good-byes to Dad. I’ll never forget it and I still get emotional when I think of our final moments together. Dad’s death was NOT sudden. He died on June 5, 1992.

George presided over Dad’s funeral.

Now; George and Dad had grown very close over the years. They had much in common and especially fishing. It was with George on a fishing trip down south that would be Dad’s last time fishing.

George found himself in front of our large family at the service for Dad and his poise, grace and passion was amazing. I could not have done it without breaking down into an uncontrollable flood of tears.

With George doing Dad’s service, it felt right, because though Dad was not a deeply religious man, he at least had a relationship with a man of the cloth; his son-in-law.

When Mom passed away on April 22, 1999, George was again called upon to do the services and again, it felt as though it was “kept in the family”, so to speak, and with George speaking so fondly of memories of Mom and remember; this was a lady that wasn’t too fond of him in the beginning.

But, that’s the thing. George, without even trying or at least without showing it, had come into Mom’s favor, because even she could see how happy George and Judy were together.

I will miss him deeply for his intelligence, compassion, world views, his blue collar work ethic, and his pride when he spoke of all of his boys-Jerry, Steven, Rod and Art.

That he was able to find comfort, even in the midst of the tragedies in his own life and all the while, console others with similar circumstances is a testament to the giant heart housed within this man.

But, what I will miss the most will be OUR talks, our exchange of emails and the joy and pride that I could see in my sister Judy.

Yes; I am going to miss my big brother.

Heaven got a good one.


The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, who also writes as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of www.fireengineering.com, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. All articles by the author are protected by federal copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form without expressed permission.

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