In a time of corporate chaos, remembering an ethical man

This Just In...

August 05, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

AMERICA'S SENSE of time has been squeezed and twisted like a Daliesque clock in the past year, so, until I looked it up again yesterday morning, I wasn't certain which came first: the death of young Dan McNeal, who believed in ethics over profits, or the collapse of Enron.

It turns out that Enron, now a synonym for corporate corruption, started its public tumble about six weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, where Dan McNeal worked earnestly as a financial analyst and, as such, a seeker of corporate truth. So, given the big-money scandals since Sept. 11, the irony of McNeal's loss jumps at you.

From the criteria for an award that memorializes him at his graduate alma mater, the Georgetown University business school: "Dan was known for his strong ethical stances. In the world of business where ethics can often take a back seat to profits, Dan was a firm believer in doing the right thing, regardless of any personal cost."

From Michael B. Levy, one of his professors at Georgetown, in a letter to McNeal's parents: "Dan had a very deep sense that we were put on this earth for a purpose, that our own excellence was a gift, and we had to use it to the benefit of others. He not only wanted to know how markets worked, how businesses succeeded, but how they made the world better. And when they did not work for everyone, what needed to be done to change the equation. ... From my vantage point, a teacher nearly 30 years his senior, Dan was a completed human being, the epitome of all that we want our sons and daughters to be. Dan was here for too few years, but he achieved a level of character most men do not achieve in a very long lifetime."

His mother, Kathryn "Kitty" McNeal, recalls being told by two New England bankers that they rarely met anyone on Wall Street with her son's level of honesty and integrity.

But now he's almost a year gone and, while those who knew him as the committed and selfless five-year class president at Loyola High School continue to mourn the loss of one of Blakefield's brightest lights, those appalled by the scale of the nation's corporate corruption should mourn the loss of an ethical young businessman working the system from inside. He had that Jesuit idea - even before entering Loyola in seventh grade, his mother says - of "being a man for others," and one of his desires in life was to bring his personal ethos into the financial world, which fascinated him.

McNeal was 29 years old. He worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center for Sandler O'Neill & Partners. "It was the only company he wanted to work for coming out of Georgetown," his mother said. He liked its relatively small size - 148 employees in New York, 23 others elsewhere - and Sandler O'Neill's philosophy and ethical standards.

Once, Kitty McNeal says, her son felt it necessary to recommend that the rating of a company be lowered, knowing it meant the loss of an account for Sandler O'Neill. "But that's the kind of man he was," she said. "And the company stood behind him."

McNeal became a Sandler O'Neill vice president within 15 months. He was, as always, motivated, enthusiastic and focused on excellence - as he had been at Loyola, during his undergraduate days at Boston College and at Georgetown. He told his mother he wanted to "make it big on Wall Street," then return to Georgetown as a teacher.

After the first jet struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, McNeal called his mother from his office in the adjacent tower, saying he was all right. His mother still has the recording on her answering machine. McNeal then called his father, 77-year-old Mike McNeal, who was in a bed at a hospice.

"Dad, I'm all right. I'm going to get down now," Dan McNeal told his father, and just after Mike McNeal finished the phone call and turned his eyes toward a television, he saw the second plane hit the second tower, Dan's tower.

The explosion took place several flights below Sandler O'Neill. His mother believes Dan McNeal tried to escape toward the roof and might have been there when the tower collapsed. Emergency workers found his body near the top of the ruins on Sept. 11. "It was a miracle they found him," his mother said. The funeral was Sept. 18.

Dan McNeal was one of 66 Sandler O'Neill employees who died at Ground Zero. The company has opened a new office in midtown Manhattan, hired new staff and dedicated a memorial. "A wonderful company," says Kitty McNeal, who lost her only son in September and her husband in December. "They've been so good to me, keeping me in the loop of things even though I'm down here in Maryland."

And then there's her daughter, Kathleen (expecting a child this month), and the consoling and supportive Loyola mothers, and all Dan McNeal's classmates, the ones who remember 1990, their senior year, as "the year of McNealism." They've repeatedly come to her door and called her on the phone, and one of them created a Web site ( with tributes from Dan McNeal's many friends. They'll stage a $200-per-player golf tournament Aug. 12 at the Country Club of Maryland (410-821-9753 to register) to raise money for the Dan McNeal Memorial Scholarship at Loyola.

It's fitting because McNeal loved golf - "He had just bought new clubs," his mother says - and even on the links his "man for others" instinct came out. A few years ago, on an outing with co-workers from Riggs Bank in Washington, McNeal stepped between a woman and a flying ball, and he took a bloody knock to the head. Then he apologized to the rest of the golfers for holding up their game.

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