By SONYA ROBERTS-WOODS/Publisher
February was filled with “goodbyes for now” for Mount Pleasant native Karen Neeley. After starting the month off bidding farewell as the chair of the annual Hearts for Hospice Ball, she recently ended the month with wishing her fellow Hospice board members the best.
And although she’s always been quick to credit her Ball Committee for making it all come together, the key to the success of last month’s Hearts for Hospice Ball for the past 19 years has Karen Neeley’s name written all over it.
Born in Pittsburg, Neeley has called Mount Pleasant home her entire life—despite what her birth certificate says.
“The only reason why I was born in Pittsburg is because the hospital in Mount Pleasant hadn’t quite opened yet when I was born,” she said. “I think I missed it by just a few days. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being from Pittsburg. I love Pittsburg. It’s just that Mount Pleasant has always been home.”
Raised by loving grandparents H.O. and Suzie Housworth, Neeley, an only child, grew up near where the P.E. Wallace Middle School campus is located today.
“Back then, it was the country,” she said. “I remember we would play outside all day and it was perfectly safe.”
As a young student, she attended Annie Sims Elementary School. Later, as a student at Mount Pleasant High School, Neeley had the privilege of helping to name one of the high school’s most iconic organizations.
“I was a freshman when we voted to name the drill team Tiger Dolls,” she recalled. “There were 48 of us on the team my senior year. It was the newest thing in town and so everyone was excited to be a part of it. I can still remember the bus rides to and from the ball games. We had so much fun.”
A graduate of the Class of 1971, Neeley got married soon after and had two sons, Bryan and Barry. The young mother and wife later began her professional career as an assistant at Leon Wright’s income tax business. She then worked a short stint at the local hospital as a respiratory therapy tech before joining Guaranty Bank in December 1978 as a teller. It was there that Neeley found her true calling.
“I just seemed to really take to banking,” Neeley said. “I always loved numbers so banking, especially the accounting side of things, was a perfect fit for me.”
After her first marriage ended, Neeley found love for a second time when one of her bank customers, David Neeley, started taking a special interest in her. The two tied the knot in May of 1987 and have been inseparable ever since.
Working in various leadership roles, Neeley moved up the ranks as a bank administrator. And along the way, she had to go up against the likes of a then new and relatively unknown invention—the personal computer.
“Between the computer and the server, they took up almost a whole room and at first everyone was scared of it,” she laughed. “For the first few months, we would turn it on in the morning and turn it off in the evening every day and that was it. Finally, we decided we needed to learn how it actually worked.”
Computers did eventually become Neeley and her staff’s best friend. She retired from Guaranty Bank in August 2005 as Vice President and Administrator of the Operational Center. Her department was responsible for deposit services, computer technology and record retention. She credits her husband for helping her to make the decision to retire.
“I came home one day after a really hard day at work and David and his friend Gary, who had both just retired, were sitting on the back porch drinking a beer and having too good of a time,” she laughed. “That was it for me. If he was going to be retired, so was I.”
The retirement allowed the Neeleys to do what they’ve always loved to do—travel.
“I always knew I wanted to retire young enough to travel and enjoy it and so that’s what I did,” she said.
With numerous trips to places like Europe, Canada, Singapore and Bali, the couple has also gone on several cruises all over the world and just spent this past Christmas traveling through Austria, Germany and Hungary.
“It was great to see Christmas in another part of the world,” she said. “Here, Christmas is so commercialized, but Christmas there is more like it was when we were little kids. It’s not about the latest iPad or go cart. It’s actually about celebrating the true meaning of Christmas.”
Immediately after returning from her holiday trip, Neeley, who has also served as a Mount Pleasant Chamber of Commerce Ambassador, rallied the troops to complete the final leg of preparation for this year’s Hospice Ball.
“It was hard because this year, the way Christmas and New Year’s fell, we really only had three weeks to get the final pieces in place.”
Preparations for the annual event actually start months in advance. A team of some 15 ladies join Neeley during late summer to begin planning every single detail of the fundraising event.
“We’ve actually already started planning for next year,” she said. “The Civic Center is booked for Feb. 1, 2020.”
How Neeley even became chair of such a prestigious event 19 years ago is a story within itself.
“We missed going to the first ball (in 1995), but we heard how much fun they all had so we went the next year and had a great time,” Neeley said. “They asked me to help out that following year and I’ve been involved ever since. Not long after that, I was asked to chair the committee but I just didn’t think I was ready to take on such a huge responsibility. Jane Scharlach had done such an excellent job as chair since the ball started. After the 2000 ball, my boss, Art Scharlach came to me and ‘suggested’ that I take over as chair and that was it.”
Reluctant at first to take on such a tall task, Neeley is now very thankful she did.
“I’m so glad I did because some of my best friendships have come from working on the Ball,” she said. “I have fostered lasting friendships with people like Linda Grundish, Suzy Boatner, Karen Harmon, Tami Moler and many others on the committee all because of the Hearts for Hospice Ball.”
Now after a total of 22 years of service, Neeley has decided to pass the torch.
“I would like to travel more and just be anonymous for a little while,” she said. “We enjoy day hiking in the Hill Country so we want to do that for a while. Thankfully, Stacy Elledge has agreed to take over as chair. It’s time for someone younger with new ideas to lead the committee. Stacy will do an excellent job.”
The admiration is mutual for Neeley’s successor.
“Karen is a wonderful friend and has been a true asset to Cypress Basin Hospice,” Elledge said. “I am humbled and honored to be asked to fill her shoes. I am also honored to serve the communities of Cypress Basin Hospice and the families who find peace and comfort from the organization’s services. I hope I can continue to help those who help others by expanding our sponsorships and growing our Cypress Basin Hospice family.”
The bar, under Neeley’s leadership, has definitely been set high. Since 2000, ticket sales and proceeds from silent and live auctions as well as sponsorships have netted the local non-profit organization an astounding $1.12 million in donations–a grand total even a former banker can appreciate.
“I’m proud of the fact that all of the money raised in those 19 years stayed right here in our community,” Neeley said. “Those funds help us continue to help those who cannot afford the services of Hospice. We don’t turn anyone away at Cypress Basin Hospice.”
During the recent ball, which features a catered meal and a live band for entertainment, Neeley, who has also served as a Cypress Basin Hospice board member for many years, was recognized for her dedicated service.
“I simply couldn’t do any of this without the committee,” she said. “They have been a real joy to work with.”
This year’s Ball Committee included: Suzy Boatner, Carolyn Brown, Regena Dunn, Stacy Elledge, Linda Grundish, Niki Haynes, Nikki Hein, Amy Hinton, Tawana Kizer, Henri King, Yorri Massey, Mitzie Mason, Tami Moler and Cassie Yancey.
With another retirement of sorts now under her belt, Neeley, who is affectionately referred to by the “little people” in her life as “KK”, will have more time to spend with her six grandchildren (three boys and three girls) ranging in age from 3 to 15.
“I actually retired from the bank to have more time when our first grandchild was born,” she said. “I’m hoping to spend even more time with them now. They are growing up so fast and life is too short. I want to really enjoy the life I have left while I still can.”