Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 8, 1999
Harold MacNeil dies at 82
By GLEN ARGAN
Harold MacNeil, chief superintendent of Edmonton Catholic Schools during 17 years of rapid growth and societal turmoil, died Oct. 29. He was 82.
More than just the head of the school district, MacNeil was a leader and pioneer in many areas of Catholic and community life.
He was a town councillor in Bonnyville and Grande Prairie, chancellor of Newman Theological College, grand knight in the Knights of Columbus, member of the Senate of the University of Alberta, president of Edmonton Catholic Charities for six years and a strong promoter of Catholic hospitals.
He was also deeply involved in the United Way, the Rotary Club of Edmonton and pro-life organizations. He even served on the board of his condominium association.
MacNeil oversaw Edmonton Catholic Schools from 1961 to 1978. During that period the system grew from 13,000 students in 44 schools to 30,000 students in 84 schools.
It was also a period of change and turmoil in society and the Church, marked by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
MacNeil strove mightily both to update Catholic education in light of the council and to ensure Catholic schools kept their Catholic identity.
He worked with Newman College to set up a program for the religious education of Catholic teachers. Then he ensured that funding was available for teachers to take sabbaticals to study at the college.
And in 1973, he criticized a provincial government plan for education reform as pure secular humanism. "There is no room (in the plan) for Christ or for reaching toward God," he said.
A native of Saskatoon, MacNeil received his university education in Alberta and earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago. In 1977 he received an honourary doctorate of laws from the University of Alberta. In 1975, the Alberta Teachers' Association named him administrator of the year.
Prior to becoming superintendent in Edmonton, MacNeil was a classroom teacher in rural Alberta and then school superintendent in Bonnyville and Grande Prairie. He also served two years as a provincial inspector of high schools.
When he retired at the end of 1978, MacNeil stepped up his volunteer involvement. He served six years as chancellor of Newman College and played a key role in the transfer of ownership of Catholic hospitals in the province from religious orders to a new corporation set up by the Alberta bishops.
He served more than a decade on the board of Edmonton's Misericordia Hospital and was executive director of the Alberta Catholic Hospitals Planning Council which negotiated to keep the ownership of Catholic hospitals in Catholic hands after religious orders withdrew from ownership.
He was honoured by the Catholic Health Association of Alberta (CHAA) in 1988 and, in 1990, he received the top award of the Catholic Health Association of Canada.
Despite all his accomplishments, MacNeil is remembered as a humble man who typically diverted the credit for his accomplishments to others.
When the WCR asked him for an interview on his 80th birthday, he politely declined, saying "there are more deserving people out there to talk to."
Those who knew MacNeil said he always sought to bring out the best in others.
"I found Harold to be a tremendous mentor to me as a new member of the school board," recalls former trustee and former senator Jean Forest.
"He had a deep commitment to the Catholic faith and to the Catholic philosophy of education," she said.
Forest said MacNeil was both courageous and diplomatic. In Alberta Catholic education, "his advice was always sought in difficult situations."
Kathy O'Neill, recently retired executive director of the CHAAA, echoed that view. "He had the courage of his convictions. He didn't take comfortable decisions. He would do what needed to be done."
Despite his advancing cancer, MacNeil made an appearance at the fundraising walk sponsored this summer by the CHAAA. "He showed up for everything," said O'Neill.
Dale Ripley, current superintendent at Edmonton Catholic, admired MacNeil from a distance when he was beginning his own teaching career.
"He was a legend in the district," Ripley said.
MacNeil had a reputation for integrity and honesty and for placing a high value on Catholic education, he said. "He was also very good at spotting leadership qualities in other people and nurturing them and bringing them along."
Pat Quinlan was an area superintendent under MacNeil at the school district and became a close personal friend.
"He was a very caring, astute, intelligent gentleman," Quinlan said. "He had an exceptional mind."
MacNeil is survived by his wife Norma, their six children and 11 grandchildren. Funeral services were held Nov. 3 at Resurrection Church.