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A legacy of dreams becoming reality: Generations of NC State graduates and engineers

John Hugh McNeill Cardboard Cutout group photo

Families often accumulate traditions that shape them over generations. For the McNeill family, many of their traditions are tied back to NC State, where starting with Hugh McNeill, they nurtured a spirit of invention and curiosity through interests in their studies and Wolfpack athletics.

Hugh, the first in his family to attend NC State, graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1960. In December of 2014, Hugh passed away at 76 due to complications of cancer treatment. But six years later, the Wolfpack fan could be spotted at the south end zone of Carter-Finley Stadium for NC State’s first home game of 2020 when fans were offered the opportunity to have their likeness printed on cardboard cutouts to bring the stadium back to life during COVID-19.

“I knew the moment I saw State was offering cardboard football fans for this crazy 2020 season that Hugh should be one of them, and that the 2003 Gator Bowl photo of him was the one to use,” said Peggy McNeill, Hugh’s wife of 54 years. “How special to ‘see’ Hugh there enjoying this season and to remember all those fun afternoons together cheering the Wolfpack.”

The love for the Wolfpack does not stop with Hugh. The McNeills continue to have a presence at NC State through generations of graduates.

After Hugh, his son David McNeill, the associate director of NC State’s Global Training Initiative, was introduced to NC State at an early age and later on became an NC State MBA graduate of ‘19. David credits his work and education from NC State for impacting his life in significant ways, and, recognizing the deep roots his family has in North Carolina, he is motivated to see how NC State continues to grow and thrive.

“I resonate with the land-grant mission of our University: ‘to better the lives of the citizens of North Carolina,’” said David. “I believe my time at NC State has helped me to contribute to the legacy some of my ancestors left in making North Carolina a better place for all those that call it home.”

The most recent generation of McNeills include David’s sons Murphy McNeill, a senior materials science and engineering major, and Austin McNeill, a senior computer science major.

To Murphy, it was a “no-brainer” to attend NC State. Now, as Murphy nears graduation and prepares to enter the workforce, he sees some similarities between himself and the original engineer of the family, while paving his own path.

“While I’m not doing the exact same thing my grandad did, there are definitely some parallels,” said Murphy. “With a job lined up at Wolfspeed, I’m excited to get involved in something new and cutting edge where there is extensive research, something that seemed like science fiction just a few years ago and seeing where that takes me.”

Growing up in Red Springs in Robeson County, Hugh was always interested in science and math, and he started at NC State in 1956.

“He would have never considered going anywhere else,” said Peggy. “State was the way to go if you wanted to be an engineer or scientist.”

During his college years, Hugh could regularly be found at Reynolds during basketball season, just down the street from his dorm. And wanting to give back to his community, he also became involved in NC State’s Air Force ROTC and Presbyterian campus ministry.

After graduation, Hugh spent five years in the Air Force. He first worked as a launch control officer in the first Minuteman Missile Wing during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later, he relocated to Florida to work at the Eastern Test Range to oversee launch and recovery operations for the U.S. space program.

Leaving the Air Force, he began a thirty-year career with IBM at the Kennedy Space Center in the Apollo program, managed a group working on early silicon chips in Huntsville, NC, and eventually got back to Research Triangle Park where he was involved in the development and manufacturing of the first four generations of ThinkPads.

“In terms of career, it was an exciting and challenging time for someone interested in engineering,” said Peggy. “I think you have to understand the context of the space race and emergence of technology during those years and how exciting it was to be a part of all that. It was certainly nothing he ever dreamed of in high school or even in college.”

While Hugh’s work took him and his family far away from North Carolina, Wolfpack pride was still a staple within the household. His college roommate, Jim Watson, joined the family in Huntsville for one of the biggest days in State basketball history to watch the Pack beat seven-time champion UCLA in double overtime in the semifinals of State’s 1974 National Championship. And several times over the years Hugh took his three sons to Atlanta to cheer for the Wolfpack in the Peach Bowl.

During his retirement, Hugh continued his strong support of campus ministry both at NC State and regionally. He and Peggy regularly welcomed NC State international students, including hosting students in their home. Hugh reflected on how he felt NC State prepared him for the exciting career he had and what the next generations of engineers had to look forward to as they became members of the Wolfpack.

“Dad was an engineer’s engineer and a deeply committed family man,” David said. “As Murphy and Austin graduate in 2022 to begin their engineering careers, I know Dad will be watching from above with a big Wolfpack smile on his face thrilled to see them start their journey and anticipating what dreams they will realize.”