By Bob Druckman, Publisher
(Photos by Mandi Cook Photography)
When we think of wars we often don’t think of the “Forgotten War” the Korean War. Billy (“Pop”) Neal fought in Korea and is a proud veteran. On October 16th Pop will be celebrating his 90th birthday. He also had a wonderful career at NASA. His daughter, Beverly Lowe, has a long history of leadership within the Huntsville veteran’s community.
I had the honor of interviewing Billy and Beverly for this feature.
Billy, Where are you from originally?
I was born in Huntsville and went to school in Monrovia. I quit school in the 9th grade. I remember the principal there Pop Fanning. He was a big man and could really swing that paddle (laughs). Beverly added that he was the principal there when she was in the first grade. “I looked so much like my dad that they called me “Little Billy.”
Billy was 16 years old and working picking cotton on his stepfather’s farm and didn’t see much of a future. Finally, his mother signed the papers so he could join the Army at 17. After Basic Training he went off to Aberdeen Proving Ground to receive training as a welder. This training would turn out to important in his post Army life.
Tell us about your time in the Army.
I was just there to serve my country. I was at the Battle of Inchon and celebrated my 18th birthday at the Manchurian border. The conditions were brutal. Temperatures were 40 below and I got frostbite on my toes. No tents, just sleeping on the frozen ground. In the morning we would have to chip away at the liquid vapor from the breathing hole in the sleeping bag.
Back in the states, I was assigned to an airborne company. There were 4 people in the company. They needed an administrative assistant, so I became that person even though I was a PFC.
So let’s talk about your post Army career.
Jobs were definitely not plentiful. I had to take whatever I could get… I bounced around quite a bit, but did find steady work in Chattanooga in a chemical plant. I didn’t come out of the military with a job waiting for me. It was pretty different back then.
I managed to work my way back to Huntsville where I got a job at Martin Stove (today we know it as Stovehouse). This was at the very beginning of the Space Program and my job was to work the machines that cut down the boxes that were a little too long. I swept up the shavings each day even though I didn’t have to. My supervisor liked the job that I did so I received a promotion to sweeper on the factory floor.
They must have liked me because they sent me to a company school to learn how to make hardware (Tool and Die maker). I worked my way up to supervisor (night shift) and did that for 4 years.
I had a friend who was working at NASA making models of their hardware and he asked me if I would be interested in joining NASA. I met with the HR manager and they offered me the job on the spot. After giving my 2 weeks’ notice at Martin Stove, I joined NASA on June 17th 1966 and spent 33 years in the Public Affairs Department.
Tell us about your time at NASA.
My role was making hardware models at NASA that I transported to so many places. From schools, to engineering fairs, to World’s Fairs; I visited 37 of the contiguous 48 states, 2 World’s Fairs and International Air Shows. My career spanned Apollo to the Shuttle programs. I did spend time with Von Braun in his office. You didn’t linger, you went in had your conversation and left.
One thing I learned, you are what you make yourself. Growing up poor in rural Alabama, I never thought I would accomplish some of the things I did.
Tell us about your family.
It’s big (We all laugh). There’s Beverly Neal Lowe who has 1 son and he has 3 children. Daughter Paula Neal has 2 sons with 7 children between them and 4 grandchildren. Daughter Lisa Walker has 4 children, 3 daughters and a son, along with 13 grandchildren and a great grandchild and my son Don Neal has 2 sons and I grandchild.
All together this comes to 4 children, 8 grandchildren, 18 great grandchildren and 1 great, great grandchild.
“Pops” daughter Beverly has been a fixture with the City of Huntsville for 20 years. Currently she is the City of Huntsville Special Event Permit Supervisor. As she says, Permitting is a collaborative effort between all the departments. We all rely on each other’s expertise to ensure the safety of all Huntsvillian’s when an event occurs.
Beverly was born in Chattanooga, but came to Huntsville when she was 18 months old. She attended Butler High School and received a Paramedic’s Certificate from UAH after her husband’s death.
Beverly has a son Jason, who is the Senior Pastor at Faith Community Church in Beckley, West Virginia. He is married to Michelle and they have 3 children Noah, Benjamin and Kate.
Beverly has been a major force in the veteran’s community in Huntsville.
How did you get involved with military organizations and more importantly why?
I was married to Captain America. My late husband, Ralph, was a true patriot, but because of a heart condition, he was rejected from all of the branches of the Armed Forces. Ralph being who he was found another was to serve. He worked at AAFES and this was his way of serving, he volunteered to go to Viet Nam so the service members would have an exchange. It was just like being in the military. He wanted to serve because of the sacrifices that they make for us. He instilled patriotism, he loved his country and when he passed I picked up the torch and carried it forward.
I was mostly involved with NAVFOC (North Alabama Veteran’s and Fraternal Coalition) I served as President for 4 years and was Mayor Battle’s Military Liaison.
What message would you like to send to our readers about our veterans?
Billy: We always need to make sure that our veterans get their just due. Providing them with the resources to survive is very important.
Beverly: It’s important that we as a community support our veterans, emotionally and financially. Remembering our Gold Star families is something we have to keep at the top of our minds.