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January 13, 2009

Breakneck:

"I get the feeling that the 24-hour news networks are like the bus in the movie 'Speed.' If they stop talking for a second, they think they'll blow up."

--Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, 2008 (Thanks to alert WORDster Ross Martin)

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Professor makes life work of preserving Navajo way of life, including sheep

By Rachel Christensen

December 11, 2008 | Lyle McNeal's office at Utah State University is a collection of organized chaos. Books overflow from the shelves of his tiny work space and several stacks of papers litter his desk, computer stand, and virtually any unused surface area. Figurines, stuffed animals, and pictures of sheep of all shapes and colors peek out from every corner. One sheep animal sheep wears a Santa Claus hat. Another sheep figurine acts as a candy dispenser. Not a single corner of his office is unadorned by some representation of sheep. He is, after all, a specialist.

McNeal, USU agriculture professor and sheep and wool specialist, has lived his life in pursuit of his passions: teaching, preserving the native Navajo-Churro sheep and correcting what he sees as injustices to the Navajo people.

McNeal has been dedicated to education ever since his elementary school days. He had to walk 1.8 miles one way to school every day, and the soles of his shoes would wear out. He would then put cardboard on the bottom of his shoes to prevent holes in his socks.

McNeal first discovered the power of an inspirational teacher and his love of history in Mrs. Garret's 4th grade class.

"I loved her, she lighted the fire in my soul for history," McNeal said. "(Kids) need a good teacher to light that flame."

McNeal grew up on a farm during World War II. Food and money were scarce and there was no such thing as allowance money for the children. By age 11, McNeal was economically self-sufficient because of the job that kept him working nearly full time. He also went to school and completed his chores on the household farm.

Even with his job, there wasn't enough money for things like toys, and his grandpa made most of the toys McNeal played with. Trains fascinated McNeal and the one toy he always wanted was an electric toy train.

McNeal grew up listening to the singing cowboy poets Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as well as Tim McCoy and Iron Eyes Cody. Later in his life, in 1977, McNeal would meet McCoy, his favorite cowboy, and McCoy would congratulate him for his work with the Navajo-Churro sheep.

McNeal's love for education and desire to leave the impoverished conditions of his childhood led him to Cal Poly where he supported himself through school. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in animal husbandry in 1963. Then in 1966 he received his master's in genetics and range management in Reno, Nevada. While working on this degree he conducted research and taught undergraduate classes.

By the end of the 1960s McNeal's friends and family began urging him to try teaching. He had started on his doctorate and was running out of money to take care of his wife and kids. When he heard about a job opening at Cal Poly Pumona teaching veterinary science, he interviewed for the position and was hired.

"We picked up our sheep and horses and moved out," McNeal said.

In 1978 McNeal earned his doctorate from Cal Poly. During his sabbaticals, he taught at USU. McNeal finished his last required year teaching at Cal Poly and headed to Utah to stay.

McNeal has taught at USU for 30 years. He earned the 2003 national Teacher of the Year in Agriculture award and the 2005 national Faculty Adviser of the Year award. In 2007 he was honored as the Carnegie Professor of the Year, an annual award given to only one professor in each state.

Reflecting on his teaching acknowledgements and awards, McNeal said, "Hey, maybe I did find my niche."

McNeal draws on his experiences in the field of agriculture and as a student to teach his classes. When McNeal was in elementary school, teachers would often punish their students by calling them to the front of the room and spanking them with a paddle. McNeal was called to the front of the room once, and it taught him to be quiet and listen.

"To this day I'm pretty tough to my students, but I don't spank them," said McNeal who is particularly strict with cell phones and arriving to class on time. "You can have a pleasant classroom and still have behavioral laws."

McNeal requires students to put into practice the concepts they learn in the classroom. His students go on many field trips and learn from several hands-on experiences. The students also spend up to 10 nights during the semester caring for pregnant ewes and helping them give birth.

"You can talk about it, but you've got to do it and get dirty and get manure on your boots," he said.

McNeal's other passion lies with saving the Navajo-Churro sheep breed from extinction in a mission called the Navajo Sheep Project, a project he is known for nationally. The Navajo-Churro was the first breed of sheep brought to America by conquistadors. The Navajo adopted this breed of sheep, and the sheep helped shape their culture into what it is today through art, wool use and sacred beliefs.

The project meant McNeal, along with some of his students, would camp out in remote areas and search for sheep. They would collect the sheep and take them to USU to breed and take care of them. At the start of his project, fewer than 400 members of the species were alive. The project received a lot of recognition and support.

"John Wayne supported me, Robert Redford was behind me," McNeal said.

McNeal helped Wayne create his own ranch and the two wrote each other until Wayne's death in 1979.

In 1981 McNeal started returning the sheep, now several thousands of them, to the Navajo. McNeal sees this project as a way to give back to the natives who have had so much taken from them.

"I grew up around Indians and we (white Americans) mistreated them so I was going to do something right," he said. "For what we've done to them I'm ashamed, but it's not over."

In June of 1983, McNeal gave a presentation about the Navajo-Churro project in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Navajo family of Mary and Goldtooth Begay was also invited to demonstrate weaving and the Native American culture. Goldtooth was searching for a restroom when he walked past the auditorium where McNeal was giving his presentation. Even though Goldtooth didn't understand English, he recognized the sheep on the slides. Goldtooth didn't continue his search for the bathroom but instead brought his family to McNeal's auditorium. After his presentation, Goldtooth's daughters introduced themselves and their parents to McNeal.

"It was so synergistic," McNeal said. "I didn't have to understand Navajo and he didn't have to understand English. We just bonded then."

McNeal helped the Begay family and through the sheep project was able to give them Navajo-Churro sheep of their own. In 1984 the family asked McNeal to become a member of their family and McNeal gratefully accepted.

"I didn't have a good family upbringing," McNeal said. "To this day I still don't talk to my mother. She was abusive. I never had a caring mother like Mary (Begay)."

The Begay family taught McNeal the culture and he learned cross-cultural respect. He also received a rare honor from Mary when she took him out into the wilderness and trained him as a medicine man. McNeal considers this training to be the equivalent of another college degree. In return, McNeal passed on much of his knowledge of sheep to the family such as how to use a sheep crook.

Goldtooth died in 2005 at the age of 106, and Mary died one year later. McNeal told his children that when the day comes that he passes on he wants to be buried on the Navajo reservation next to Goldtooth and Mary.

McNeal plans to continue teaching and then hopes to retire to his property in Colorado. The property is close to his Navajo family as well as the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge train that McNeal has ridden more than 300 times.

"I'm a junkie, I've got to ride that train a few times a year," McNeal said.

He first rode the train in 1950 and has now ridden it so many times that he has become its ambassador and gets free passes. The train ride incorporates everything that is important to McNeal and has sculpted the man he is today: memories of his past, beautiful canyons and wildlife scenery, sheep pastures and sacred Navajo grounds.

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