logoJIM NEILL - CLASS OF 1972 A tribute by Billy Tate.


The natural balance of life should not dictate that children die before their parents but life is not fair. Parents are not immune from the pain and this is what makes the highs all the more precious. Brother and sister robbed of a life that lit up the house and broken hearts frozen in time. Wife and family immersed in grief, contemplating what might have been, now lost and never recoverable. The class of 1972 were immortal, confident and impatient, as they strained at the leashes ready to rush headlong into adult life. We would change the world; it was our destiny.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
( Bob Dylan 1964)

Looking back at the pictures of our fresh faces, obscured by rebellious facial hair, with long and tumbling locks resting on the school blazer; it is hard to imagine that death could rob us of one of the best, as he approached his prime. People when reflecting on road traffic accidents often refer to a waste of life but there was nothing wasted about Jim's life.

A son of the soil from a Birches town-land, where his name is proudly shared by a number of families, he enriched our lives. Small in stature, large in presence and a big heart, how we miss him. Whenever the door swung open Jim always entered at pace determined to fill every second with new experiences, as if he knew that his life was to be brief. He was forever running along the corridors moving from one group of friends to another. It was a privilege to be included as one of his friends, but in reality, I was only one of many. Undoubtedly, he was one of the most popular boys in the year.

The thing that struck me most about Jim was his sense of loyalty and dedication. It is a truism that as we progressed through the school our friendship group became more narrowly focussed on our Portadown College peers. However, he had a strong bond with the men from the Birches and he was proud of his roots. His dedication over a life-time to Tartaraghan Boys' Brigade was a credit to the measure of the boy and subsequently the man.

In Lower-Sixth Mr Mulligan allowed pupils to use the weights-bar in the gymnasium changing-room, to enable us to develop the strength required for the various sports in school. Like all pretentious teenagers we were 'macho' men deluded into thinking that we were the next Charles Atlas. All of the boys in the weights-group that day where much taller and bulkier than Jim but this counted for nothing. We were 'working-out' when, as usual, the door was swung open, a bag was thrown across the room and Jim asked us what we were doing. Richard Heggarty explained to him that we were preparing for the new rugby year.

He asked for a 'turn' at the weights and we stood back awaiting the inevitable struggle to raise the bar. To our astonishment he 'pumped-iron' like a professional, not that he had done so before that day but his natural strength had been honed amongst his farming neighbours. We had been humiliated by this dynamo packed into a diminutive body and a smile that lit up the night.

He introduced us to the 'barn-dance' and what a magnificent time we had dancing to Big Tom and the Mainliners. This innocent fun was far removed from the nasal-droning that epitomised the counter-culture music of Bob Dylan. No pretensions with Jim, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, a natural advantage for his chosen career path.

Years later I met him in Belfast, whilst he was studying for his insurance exams, and we had a great day in each other's company. After that we lost contact, as we followed our destiny in different parts of the country. I did not meet-up with Jim again until I was the father of four and a world away from Portadown College. I was looking for a seven-seater-car, which was a proverbial case of 'hen's-teeth' almost two decades ago. I called into Francis Neill's Motors and was greeted by Jim, hand outstretched and that legendary smile radiating across his face. Inevitably the memories were shared and a date was fixed for a meeting in two weeks time.

Unfortunately, this meeting was never to take place, as Jim was killed that weekend. The world had lost one of the good-guys and we are all the poorer for his passing. As long as we speak of his name, his spirit will not pass away and it is in my heart that Jim remains.

In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much, how little, is
Within our power

Emily Dickinson