Entry Five | Famous for Muncie

'The bearded biker of Burkhardt'

Professor Richard Neel to retire at end of year

Emily Cunningham | features longform reporter

It’s 11 o’clock Wednesday morning, and Dr. Richard Neel is getting his class warmed up for the day’s lecture. His long, silver hair is split over the tops of his shoulders, just shy of catching up to the tail-end of his beard.

A cell phone rings out—a modern, hip-hop number. Neel dances along to the disruption, toes tapping, arms pumping, concentration plastered across his face. His shirt’s got the Rolling Stones logo embroidered on the left side of its chest.

Friendly laughter ripples through the almost-full classroom.

“Good afternoon,” Neel says with a smile.

Richard Neel, a Ball State alumnus, has been a professor at Ball State for 30 years on one-year contracts. When Neel was a graduate student, he studied under professor Burkhardt, who taught him to be himself. DN PHOTOS BREANNA DAUGHERTY

He’s used to this — engaging students with unconventional antics. He’s been teaching at Ball State on one-year contracts for 30 years running.

This year, the dancing, the keen insights into the human condition — it all comes to a close. He’s retiring.

All that seems far off today. He removes his black leather Harley Davidson flat cap and sets it on the table next to his bag, signaling that it’s time to get down to business.

The HIST 150 West in the World class has been discussing the rise of civilization, democracy and isolationism. Neel compares it to the college experience: man moves forward toward a better life in a larger and more structured community, yet finds it fully possible to feel completely alone and wholly disconnected.

“When you start thinking about yourself as a world member, you start to feel rather insignificant,” he said, followed by a reference to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

He peppers the lecture with humor and sarcasm. His body is animated—arms stretch in and out, shoulders shrug and his hands toggle up and down. His silver, black-faced watch catches the light every so often.

All throughout, he retains and reminds the class that, simply put, things happen, however terrible or gruesome or great they may be. To put it in his own words: “’What if,’ in history, doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

The collegiate ride

Before Dr. Neel was Dr. Neel, he was Richard, a small kid growing up in the streets of Muncie, Ind. He had a minor speech impediment and did well in school because he stayed out of trouble.

When he was 14, his dad opened a tool and die shop in Muncie. Neel began working there, manning the drill press in the garage and plugging away at a high school diploma.

He graduated from Muncie Central in 1968, although his long hair prevented his senior photo from being printed in the yearbook.

In 1976, Neel graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in history and biology. His GPA was 2.5, but he had forged an alliance with a handful of faculty members. He applied and was accepted into the master’s program.

“Some let me in, I think, to watch me fail,” he said. “But I didn’t fail. I did real well.”

He graduated two years later with his master’s degree in American history, and there was no turning back. He set his sights on the doctorate program that Ball State offered at the time.

“I wanted to go to grad school for a number of reasons, but primarily so I wouldn’t have to be at the shop all the time and be with my old man,” Neel said. “I always tell my classes, ‘If you ever get the chance to work with your parents your entire life, don’t do it.’”

During his collegiate ride at Ball State, Neel took up another type of riding—motorcycles. Alongside working for his father, he spent his time in school and with the bike club, the two linked by his microbiology professor, Walter. Walter encouraged Neel to pursue the doctorate. He continued to push Neel when others said he’d never make it through, or that doctorate programs were for elitists and brainiacs.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t for the gods, this is just a lot of determination and taking care of business,” he said. “That’s how I went from a 2.5 GPA to a 3.9. But I didn’t get any smarter, you know?”

It took 10 years, a 1000-page dissertation on the history of baseball in Muncie, not being taken seriously by most and being taken incredibly seriously by just the right few.

“Dr. Burkhardt, Dr. Edmonds, Ray White, Rosenberg. These guys, they all taught me how to teach, and they taught me how to act, and they taught me to be myself, and that’s just what I am. I didn’t end up a talking suit,” said Neel.

In 1988, Neel graduated from Ball State a second time with his doctorate in Urban History.

“They told me I couldn’t, and when you tell me I can’t, that’s when I excel,” Neel said.

 

Doing it his way

Neel is one of the few constants in Ball State’s ever-evolving landscape. He’s seen it all: budget cuts, co-workers being let go or moving on, and new financial and academic plans being implemented.

“The problem that you have today in education, all throughout, is they’re worried about the brand. They’re worried about themselves,” he said. “They’re not worrying about the students,”

Neel has been employed at Ball State on a one-year contract for 30 years running – not something that happens often.

“I’ve watched as everything’s changed. It changed how I have to teach my classes and I don’t like it any time someone else tells me how I have to teach,” Neel said. “I’m not too [politically correct] at all. I’ll just tell you what I think and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve got more to share with people about my life experiences than I do teaching history, because I’ve lived a pretty unique life.”

He’s never been afraid to do things his own way, and he challenges his students to do the same.

When Neel was a teenager, he protested the Vietnam War. Now he questions how money is used in higher education, and the validity of global warming. He also refuses to let the government tell him how to run his life, or give him money.

Despite coworkers discouraging classroom talk of his libertarian beliefs and being concerned with his degree of political correctness, students found a characteristic in Neel that was rare to find anywhere else. After a round of administrative budget and faculty adjustments, the executive board, at the time, found no reason not to keep Neel on.

“What they discovered were that my evaluations were so much higher than theirs that they couldn’t bother me. So the students have kept me here all this time,” said Neel. “I’ve just stuck it out here and I’m in everybody’s face. I’m still Old Grey Beard and most people don’t want much of me. I like it like that.”

The special things

In June of 1980, Neel’s life would change forever. His daughter Leann was born. She and her 19-month-old son Neel—a family namesake—are hailed as Neel’s greatest life accomplishments.

Leann Neel-Romine is now a professor in Ball State’s math department. She acknowledges the strength of their bond and considers it an asset in her life.

“My dad and I are very close,” she said. “I tell him almost everything and I talk to him every day.”

She’s inherited his love of baseball and music. They’ve had season tickets to the Reds—five seats behind third base—for most of her life. They’ve attended numerous concerts together, including Billy Idol (when she was only 3 years old), Alice Cooper (when she was only 7 years old), Rob Zombie and The Black Crowes. He took her to see Aerosmith for her 13th birthday.

When she turned 18, they got tattoos together. When he turned 50, they got two more.

Richard Neel is known for commonly wearing a Rolling Stones polo, a band he firmly “believes in.” Neel says he believes in music because it’s something he has control over. DN PHOTOS BREANNA DAUGHERTY

“Don’t worry, they aren’t matching!” she said.

After following The Cure around for a few shows in the Tri-State area, the two of them were noticed by the tour manager and invited backstage to meet the band. Even lead singer Robert Smith recognized their faces from the crowd.

“It’s something I’ll always remember,” she said. “He loves The Cure and Robert Smith so much. It was funny to actually see him be kind of nervous and speechless. He always has something to say.”

Neel took Leann to Marilyn Manson’s first show after the Columbine Massacre, complete with church protesters lining the facility. He attended one of Janis Joplin’s last shows before her death in 1970. He’s seen the Rolling Stones on every tour since 1968, including this past summer in Ohio.

“I didn’t go to Indy because I thought it might get too crazy and I might get into trouble,” he said with a sly smile. His expression settles and his eyes focus. “But music’s what I believe in.”

In March of 1968, Jimi Hendrix came to town, “right here in Muncie,” Neel recalled. Hendrix played a small show in the barn at the fairgrounds to about 200 people.

“And I was fortunate enough to be one of them,” Neel said. “I saw my first light show, too. It all changed my life.”

Time to go

After teaching through 30 of those one-year contracts, Neel is calling it quits.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be given the gift of being able to work here all these years. And the department’s been very good to me. I’ve had the best of all worlds,” he said. “And so, I decided this year, since I turn 65, it was my time to go.”

Kevin Smith, chairperson of the History Department, acknowledges Neel’s strengths as a professor, despite the things that make him different.

“The reality is, he’s been retained because he’s an excellent teacher,” Smith said. “The long hair and beard, the leather pants, all of that, it isn’t really a factor. He’s not here because he’s different. He’s here because he’s good.”

Noting both his own and the department’s appreciation for Neel, Smith knows the students are in for a loss as well.

“He connects so well with his students,” Smith said. “He’s very human and very relatable. I don’t know how it is he connects so well with students. I suspect he draws them in and they’re curious, and before they know it, they’re learning.”

The thing is, Neel doesn’t need to make a special effort to “connect” with students. Neel’s attitude and perspective toward life resonates with those who have worked under him firsthand. Hayden Shaw, a first-year grad student in the history department, is a former student and TA of Neel’s.

“There was rarely a week where he was not up to something, a true rolling stone. That attitude always stuck with me,” said Shaw. “He put most of our college social lives to shame and was one of the best professors that I ever had the pleasure to work with. Ball State will be a little less awesome without him. The bearded biker of Burkhardt will be missed.”

Student perspectives on Dr. Richard Neel

  Crystal Caradine
Sophomore Architecture major
“He keeps my attention. He’s not your typical professor, but he’s so easy to listen to. I like his jokes comparing Muncie to the Roman Civilization.”
  McCabe Justice
Freshman Music Production major
“I think he’s very old-fashioned. He’s really chill with us, and he talks to us like we’re adults, not children.”
  Ross Kiracofe
Freshman double-major in Exercise Science and Education
“I definitely like him. He’s very down-to-Earth, very realistic. His love for the job is what makes him stand out.”
  Olivia Woolard
Freshman Music Education major
“I’ve never had a lecture-type class before, but he makes it so interesting. The way he teaches is nice. You learn so much, even just in one class.”
  Ryanne Dooley
Freshman Sociology major
“I like his way of teaching. His views on the world are so broad, so it’s not just a general lecture. He uses his own experiences. He’s really wise.”
  Meghan McDougall
Current TA to Dr. Neel
“He truly places the students and their educational progress first. He is able to discuss politics, social issues, sports and other events of his own life. Although seemingly small, the creation of this parallel helps students to retain what they learn in class and apply it to their own lives. I know that he will be missed among his students. There are very few professors who are able to connect with their students the way that he does. ”

 

Crystal Caradine
Sophomore Architecture major
“He keeps my attention. He’s not your typical professor, but he’s so easy to listen to. I like his jokes comparing Muncie to the Roman Civilization.”

 

McCabe Justice
Freshman Music Production major
“I think he’s very old-fashioned. He’s really chill with us, and he talks to us like we’re adults, not children.”

 

Ross Kiracofe
Freshman double-major in Exercise Science and Education
“I definitely like him. He’s very down-to-Earth, very realistic. His love for the job is what makes him stand out.”

 

Olivia Woolard
Freshman Music Education major
“I’ve never had a lecture-type class before, but he makes it so interesting. The way he teaches is nice. You learn so much, even just in one class.”

 

Ryanne Dooley
Freshman Sociology major
“I like his way of teaching. His views on the world are so broad, so it’s not just a general lecture. He uses his own experiences. He’s really wise.”

 

Meghan McDougall
Current TA to Dr. Neel
“He truly places the students and their educational progress first. He is able to discuss politics, social issues, sports and other events of his own life. Although seemingly small, the creation of this parallel helps students to retain what they learn in class and apply it to their own lives. I know that he will be missed among his students. There are very few professors who are able to connect with their students the way that he does. ”