When 23-year-old Amanda Neal carries the banner for Chicago College of Performing Arts during Commencement on Friday, she will be celebrating a lot more than a graduation.
Her grandmother, Barbara Lee Neal and her late grandfather, James P. Neal, are sure to be on the vocal performance graduate student’s mind when she crosses the stage of the Auditorium Theatre, for their story is embedded in the proud history and tradition of Roosevelt University.
(Above photo of the Neal family includes, from left,: Amanda's sister, Stephanie; Barbara Lee Neal, who is seated at center; Amanda's parents Greg and Jane Neal; and Amanda Neal at far right).
Lee, 86, attended Central YMCA College in 1945. She walked out with fellow students, faculty and staff in protest against a policy limiting admissions based on race, ethnicity and religion to become one of Roosevelt College’s founders.
“I love the whole history of the school and I’m glad that social justice has been part of my education and experience,” said the younger Neal, who will receive a master’s degree in music on Friday and then will travel to Italy to take part in the International Lyric Academy’s summer vocal program for opera singers.
“It’s almost overwhelming to me to be a part of something that involves my own family,” she said.
Her grandmother received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1949. She also met her late husband, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1952 from Roosevelt, outside the University’s original Wells Street facility while walking with a few of her classmates toward the subway.
Neal offered the girls a ride in his car so they wouldn’t get wet. The two went on to date while at Roosevelt and got married in 1951.
“I remember when my granddaughter was applying to several schools, and Roosevelt was one she was considering,” recalled the retired social worker who currently lives with family members in Virginia. “I told her that her grandfather and I both went to Roosevelt and that we were very pleased and happy that she wanted to go there.”
At Roosevelt, Neal became acquainted with class president Harold Washington (BA, ’49), who would go on to become Chicago mayor, and with her husband-to-be, who would go on to become the first African American to lead Cook County Hospital.
“Certainly one of the reasons we were both so happy for our granddaughter is that we knew she would be exposed to Roosevelt University values,” said Neal.
“It’s a place that accepted students regardless of race and ethnicity and that was a remarkable approach for our time,” the elder Neal said. “I’m proud to have attended Roosevelt and for my granddaughter, years later, to be exposed to those kinds of values and great education.”
The younger Neal, who hopes to pursue a career as a professional opera singer, said she will be thinking of her grandmother as she crosses the stage on Friday. “I’ve felt a kind of power from my experience at Roosevelt. It’s been with me when I walk into a classroom and think that she might have sat there too or I go through the revolving door on Michigan Avenue and think about her once being in my shoes.”
The singer’s only regret is that her grandfather, who passed away in 2008, didn’t live long enough to see her graduate. “I’m really proud to be a Roosevelt graduate,” the younger Neal. “And I’m definitely going to be carrying the banner for him.”
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