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Travis Deneal: Looking back at the life of my great-uncle

  • Sam DeNeal, with his recognition from SIUC for outstanding achievement in athletics in track (1954, 1955) and cross country (1956, 1957). The plaque was presented to him by former SIUC Athletic Director Gale Sayers.

    Sam DeNeal, with his recognition from SIUC for outstanding achievement in athletics in track (1954, 1955) and cross country (1956, 1957). The plaque was presented to him by former SIUC Athletic Director Gale Sayers.
    Travis Deneal

 
By Travis DeNeal, editor
Harrisburg Register/Eldorado Journal
updated: 1/15/2021 2:05 PM

My great-uncle Sam DeNeal passed away Jan. 6 at the age of 85, and while our family mourns his passing, we have many fond memories to treasure.

Some of my earliest memories of Uncle Sam are from Sunday school and church as a young child. My brother and my cousins all went to Rudement Social Brethren Church, with which we have a longtime family association. I could be mistaken, but it seems to me that Sam was the church superintendent, and he took it upon himself to make sure we behaved during church services.

A longtime teacher in the Marion school system, Sam made all of us young boys sit on the front pew under his watchful eye. After inviting the pastor to the pulpit, he then would sit with us, ensuring we stayed quiet during the sermon.

Every year at Christmas, we would attend the family Christmas party, and some years Sam and my Aunt Helen would host the party. Since their party was in the Herrin/Energy area, it seemed like a magical trip to a faraway locale to a young grade-school aged child.

Sam also was an accomplished track runner. One popular story told often by my grandpa (a brother to Sam) was how as a youngster, Sam and a friend were pulling some Halloween high jinks by tossing shelled corn at cars along nearby Route 34. The story goes that a "gangster" who had just gotten out of prison was in one such car. When the corn hit his windshield and startled him, he parked the car and went chasing after the boys. As my grandpa told it, Sam let the disgruntled man nearly catch up to him before running next to a pond that was hardly visible in the dark. The man fell into the pond, ending the chase.

Sam took that running ability to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he held at least two school records in track events. I should note that I always suspected my family had perhaps exaggerated Sam's running ability until I was working at the Daily Egyptian sometime in the late '90s. An SIUC track runner set a new school record, and the story by our sports desk mentioned that Sam had held that record until then.

I asked him in recent years how it made him feel to learn that his records had been broken, and he just smiled and said, "Records are made to be broken."

One thing he was especially proud of was a plaque of recognition from SIUC he received from Gale Sayers, the school's former athletic director and former Chicago Bears standout. When Sayers passed recently, I did a story about how the AD had interactions with several families from the Saline County area, not knowing Sam's connection to him. He showed me the plaque he had received with Sayers' signature on it and talked fondly of the day he received it.

I have many more wonderful memories of Sam, though time and space don't allow for them here.

However, I look forward to revisiting them with family members in the coming days.

We miss you, Uncle Sam, and look forward to seeing you again some day.