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May 24, 2014

Paris honors Otis J. Neal

Veteran of three conflicts receives new grave marker in Edgar County Cemetery

PARIS, ILL. — More than 45 years after his death, the city of Paris, Ill., paused Saturday to honor one of its most unique veterans.

Otis J. Neal fought in three conflicts under the stars and stripes: American action against Mexican raiders in 1916, World War I and World War II. Born in 1898 in Kentucky, Neal’s family moved to Paris when he was still very young. Paris remained his home until he died in 1968.

On Saturday, thanks to the Edgar Cemetery Association and many others, a marker was unveiled within the cemetery at the corner of Clay and High streets in Paris. The black, granite marker honors Neal and stands just a few feet from the flat, government-issued military marker he received upon his death 46 years ago.

“I was worried it would be like burying him all over again,” said Sandra Neal Darby, Neal’s daughter, who attended Saturday’s dedication ceremony in the majestic, sprawling graveyard. “But it was really an honor,” she said, fighting back tears.

Like many veterans, Darby said her father didn’t really talk about his war years. He had his hands full raising a difficult teenager, she said smiling. Neal’s wife, Mary Jean England, passed away four years before her husband. Mary Jean’s grave is next to her husband’s, but is unmarked, Darby said.

“He was a nice person. He was a friendly person,” said Elsie Jane Jackson, 99, who was seated next to Darby in the front row of the well-attended ceremony. For a while, Jackson and her family lived in another part of Illinois and Neal would always visit them when passing through, she recalled. “Sometimes he took us to dinner.”

Neal, in addition to being a veteran of three conflicts, was also black and his wife was white. That was not always an easy situation in Paris, Ill., in those years, Darby said. “It wasn’t a marriage made in heaven, believe me,” she said referring to the prejudice her parents faced.

Still, Neal didn’t talk much about that, either, Darby said. “He was the person he was and was very confident,” she said.

About 70 people were standing or seated at Neal’s grave site to witness the new, granite marker’s unveiling. The weather was perfect for the occasion – about 70 degrees and sunny. Military rites and taps were performed by the Honor Guard of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Active military personnel performed a formal flag presentation. The flag first touched the new marker, then was handed to Darby, who said that experience was “very emotional.”

Jordan Arrasmith, 17, a great-grandson of Neal’s, sang “America the Beautiful” and Mayor Craig Smith read a special proclamation honoring the veteran.

The goal of the Cemetery Association was to honor Neal and to show that Paris has not forgotten him or his service, said Jim Englum, master of ceremonies and president of the association.

For Neal’s daughter, the event was something she never imagined taking place, she said. And how would she describe it? “Cleansing,” she said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

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