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Robert Bruce Neel was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on August 12, 1932, to parents Robert Buckman Neel and Edna Blanche Neel (maiden name Albus). Robert grew up in Louisville. He had one sibling, sister Norma Hornak, who has long lived in the Philadelphia metro area.
Robert graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering/Industrial Chemistry from the University of Kentucky in 1954, a master’s degree in Physics from Vanderbilt University in 1960 (including a one-year thesis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory), and a Ph.D. in Inorganic/Radiochemistry in 1965 from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. He earned his Ph.D. while employed by the University of Tennessee as the Radiological Safety Officer for the nuclear reactor located on the university campus.
Robert served in the Navy from 1955 to 1957 on board the USS Columbus (a heavy cruiser). The captain of the Columbus showed great trust in Robert and designated him as the “Captain’s Talker”, the seaman who relays voice commands of the captain ship-wide, and certainly a critical role if in a combat situation.
Robert married Mary Ann Neel on May 21, 1960, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Robert and Mary Ann met at a dance. They both loved to dance together.
Robert was a deep thinker, and could readily grasp complex abstract ideas. Robert also had a childlike curiosity, including an interest in technology. He enjoyed reading science fiction novels, and always carried one with him to read whenever he might be waiting in line or otherwise delayed.
Robert passed the gifts of deep thinking and technical curiosity to his two sons, Bruce Timothy Neel and Thomas Edward Neel. Bruce has used these skills to advantage as a patent attorney, and Tom as a computer system network administrator and manager.
Robert was fearless in public, sometimes pressing forward with determination with an unconventional approach. On some occasions, this caused a bit of consternation for some, including family members. Robert spoke publicly on many occasions during his career, and had no fear of public speaking. He also was a musician often performing publicly, and played clarinet and saxophone at social functions statewide in Kentucky. Robert also played piano, and could improvise numerous songs. He loved music from the Big Band era especially.
Robert and Mary Ann spent their final working years living in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, near Burtonsville, Maryland. Robert worked as a health physicist at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (much of that time in Rockville, Maryland) from 1976 to 1999. His wife, Mary Ann, continued working longer than Robert until age 74 as a technical librarian at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She and Robert moved to Arizona 13 years ago to be close to their sons.
Robert was most proud of his work in 1997 on the Cassini project while employed at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration apply performance assessment techniques to evaluate the consequences of an accidental release of radioactive plutonium from the Cassini and Mars Pathfinder space probes.
In his personal life, Robert enjoyed wine and chocolates. He also was an avid bicycle rider for many years while living in Maryland. This included bicycling trips with Mary Ann to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where they ate seafood after rides (though Robert was the only one that rode a bike). Earlier in his life, Robert was a member of Lake Murray Sailing Club in Columbia, South Carolina, where he owned a Lightning-class racing sailboat.
Robert and family also enjoyed trips to Myrtle Beach State Park, where they camped and swam in the Atlantic Ocean (Bruce and Tom loved surfing on the waves with dad). When living in South Carolina, the family also went on camping trips to the Great Smoky Mountains (a favorite of Bruce), and various beach spots in Florida, including Panama City, Sanibel Island, and Saint Augustine.
Robert was preceded in death by his wife, Mary Ann. He is survived by his sister, Norma Hornak, and his sons Bruce Neel (Linda) of Mesa, AZ, and Tom Neel of Mesa, AZ, and grandsons Todd Jeffrey Neel (Vanessa), and Sean Thomas Neel.
A memorial service for Robert is scheduled for 2:00pm, Monday, July 26, 2021 at Mountain View Funeral Home and Cemetery, where Robert will be laid to rest following a chapel service.