Obituary: Anna Elizabeth MacWilliams Neville, 1924-2022 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Anna Elizabeth MacWilliams Neville, 1924-2022

Beloved and tireless Navy volunteer, children's advocate, educator, gardener and parent cultivated relationships around the world

Published June 6, 2022 at 6:00 a.m.
Updated June 6, 2022 at 12:45 p.m.


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Anna Neville - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Anna Neville
On the 2nd of June, 2022 Anna Elizabeth MacWilliams Neville died after 98 years of a life well lived. She was at the home she grew up in, with her daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other family members — all spending time together, just how she wanted it.

Born in St. Albans, Vt., on July 22,1924, she was the first child of Pearl Ann (Grant) MacWilliams of Miragamish, Nova Scotia, and Ralph Caldwell MacWilliams of Elysburg, Pa. Her father, the Franklin County agent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, purchased the farm on Georgia Shore Road in 1926, and it remains the much-loved “home base” of the family. Anna loved accompanying her father as he visited local farms, learning about agriculture, lessons on a lifetime of public service, and where the best homemade cookies were to be found. Thanks to her mother, Anna was one of Vermont’s first Girl Scouts and later a local troop leader introducing girls to camping and the adventures of hiking the Long Trail. Later she would work for the GS Council of greater Detroit as a leader of one of the nation's earliest integrated troops. Anna had an early interest in aviation, decorating the attic playroom with posters of planes. She had ambitions of being a pilot and traveling the world, the latter of which she admirably achieved. For her 12th birthday in 1936, she took her first flight on Central Vermont Airways from Burlington to Montpelier.

After being graduated from Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans in 1942, Anna headed down Route 7 to Middlebury College, where she majored in sociology and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in just three years. A month before graduation, she and her mother took the train to Boston so that Anna could join the U.S. Navy. Since she wasn’t yet 21 years old, she needed a parent’s permission to become one of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES. She served in Long Beach, Calif., as a pharmacist’s mate, second class. Even after leaving the Navy, she retained much of the sailor’s vocabulary she had acquired and applied it in conversation as circumstances warranted. After doing her part to pave the way for women in the U.S. military, Anna used her G.I. Bill benefits to attend Columbia University Teachers College, where she lived at International House and earned a master’s degree in international and intercultural education. There, she met Linda Tsao Yang, her dear friend of more than 75 years, and studied under Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History, a place she later delighted in taking her grandchildren to visit.

In 1954 she returned home to Vermont and began a career of more than 30 years with Social Rehabilitation Services (now the Vermont Department for Children and Families). As a social worker and later as district director for Franklin, Grand Isle, and Lamoille counties, she oversaw the busiest office in the state and was always quick to attribute their success to having the best staff in Vermont. From her earliest days in the department, Anna was clear that the needs of the child came first — bureaucratic rules were always second to the welfare of her “kids.” She was ahead of her time in her role, seeing the value in every individual no matter their background. Bryant Reynolds, a retired Navy officer and college professor who met Anna as a foster child and became a true part of her family, called her “my guiding light for 71 years who helped me acquire my success in life.”

Anna maintained an encyclopedic knowledge of her foster kids and their family connections, believing that they deserved to know their history and the truth of their own stories. Throughout the decades she was approached by former foster children, many of whom she was able to help reconnect with their families of origin. Her best and most interesting work was her kids, and she was proud of all they achieved.

In a time when many others were reluctant to question authority or to confront medical providers, she took it upon herself to educate physicians about what they needed to know and to stubbornly advocate for her kids. Dr. Fred Holmes said that “she was like a guardian angel” to him and taught him that what was really important was the relationships between people, regardless of whether you had an MD after your name. Upon her retirement, and with the support of her staff, local law enforcement and the courts, a special room at the Franklin County District courthouse was designated the Anna Neville Children’s room — a safe place for children and families waiting in the courthouse.

Along with Frank McNeil and others, she founded Franklin-Grand Isle Mental Health, now Northwestern Counseling and Support Services. She was dedicated to the community, serving on many boards, including the American Heart Association, Franklin Grand Isle United Way and Franklin County Home Health Agency, whose caring staff (especially Sarah) provided her with support in her last days. Like her father, she served as a deacon at First Congregational Church in St. Albans, and, as one fellow board member stated, “Anna had a lot of common sense and institutional knowledge. She was a real spitfire.”

After finishing at Social Rehabilitation Services, Anna served as the director of the Saint Albans Museum and enjoyed her years working with Rear Admiral Warren Hamm, laying the groundwork for the success of the museum. She worked hard to build the volunteer base and always said that the success of the museum was in the volunteers.

Starting just after WWII, Anna began to participate in cultural exchange programs that brought the world to Franklin County and Franklin County to the world. From Dutch and Norwegian farmers who came to learn from her father, to her husband’s international business associates, to her second career as an exchange student coordinator, Anna loved cultivating relationships with interesting people from all around the world. During the 1990s and early 2000s, working as a student placement coordinator for EF, Anna helped over 100 foreign exchange students find American homes in Franklin County. She placed more Indonesian exchange students than any other coordinator and was even the surprise star of an Indonesian television commercial. Rommy, Merle and Stefani each lived with Anna and have remained important members of the family.

In 1958 she married David Neville at the Little Church Around the Corner in New York City, and they made their home in Franklin, Vt., where they renovated a cottage on the Middle Road. In February 1963, Anna drove herself to the hospital in a snowstorm, where she gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer. Anna returned to work at Social Rehabilitation Services three months later, entrusting much of the daily care of her infant daughter to Winifred and Elbridge Pierce and their five children, establishing a bond with the Pierce family that continues today. As Jennifer grew up, Anna shared her love of travel and international adventures. In one early road trip around the UK, Anna resorted to her habit of asking the local police for a place to stay. All the B&Bs were full, but the police promised to keep an eye on them, so she and Jennifer spent a night car camping in the cattle yards of Slough. On another occasion, Anna famously spent the night in a cell in the Lima Heights, Ohio, police station — but as a guest and not an inmate! Jennifer’s love of travel took her all over the world for her studies, and Anna followed, visiting her in Taiwan, England and Indonesia, and traveling with her through mainland China, where they hiked the Great Wall together.

Anna was the New England representative to Clan Grant and loved attending Highland Games with her sister and indoctrinating her family with a love of bagpipe music and Scottish folk songs.

Anna was a passionate gardener, maintaining all kinds of flowers and vegetables at her family’s homes. Her knowledge of plants was comprehensive and inclusive — there were very few plants that she didn’t like and thought almost all of them deserved a chance to grow. When she wasn’t traveling or gardening, she loved to read about traveling and gardening. She read widely and instilled the love of books in her daughter and grandchildren, leaving them with a vast personal library.

In the 1940s, her love of nature led her to become an early section hiker of the Vermont Long Trail, and in retirement she loved working with naturalist Kurt Valenta, bringing nature knowledge to elementary school children. Later she donated 35 acres of land along the Mill River and the shores of Lake Champlain to the Vermont Land Trust. She was a dedicated believer in the value of preserving Vermont’s natural landscape for future generations to enjoy. The sign at the Mill River Falls Natural Area reads, “As the result of her vision and passion for history, Mill River Falls is now a favorite place for families to explore, bird watch, fish, or find a moment of tranquility.”

Anna was immensely proud of her daughter, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Even now we remain skeptical that her transition into the next world will prevent her from continuing her involvement, given her often reiterated promises of haunting and her supernatural tenacity. If anyone could pull it off, it’s Grandma. She taught us how to drive (too fast), how to pursue our passions (intensely), how to do what’s right (even when it’s unpopular) and how to confidently build unique lives.

Anna was an inimitable figure who leaves an indelible mark on Franklin County and beyond. As a small child Anna famously said, “I was not born to sleep in the daytime. I might miss a rabbit.” She will be remembered for that energy and stubbornness, her fierce and generous spirit, and her mischievous sense of humor. Anna loved the long light of the late afternoon, a well-tilled garden, a good cup of tea, and a job to do. We loved her and will miss her always.

Anna was predeceased by her mother, her father, her husband and her beloved sister, Margaret Kline. She is survived by Jennifer Bright, Bryant Reynolds, Caroline Winanna Bright (Joel), William Bright (Dominique), Ian Bright, Elizabeth Winanna Bright, Tobias Bright, Betsy Dorminey (Blair), Kathy Eakins, Rowan, Richard Cowperthwait, Robin McManus, the Pierces, Hannah Taylor and hundreds more of her “kids.” Whether they became hers through chance, choice or biology, they remain her best legacy and greatest achievement.

Instead of a traditional funeral, the family invites those who wish to remember Anna to join them for cookies, tea and remembrances at a garden reception memorial hosted by Anna’s daughter and family at The Old Mill River Place (6206 Georgia Shore Road, St. Albans, 05478) on Saturday, June 11, from 2 to 5 p.m. Attendees are invited to bring their favorite cookies, flowers from their garden or their favorite memories of Anna to share.

The family asks that contributions in Anna’s honor be sent to Anna’s Kids, Inc., a nonprofit established to honor Anna’s legacy by providing support to Franklin County foster children and youth. Checks can be mailed to Anna’s Kids at PO Box 862, St. Albans VT, 05478, and donations can be made online by visiting www.annaskids.org.

Honorary pallbearers: Bryant Reynolds, Richard Cowperthwait, Blair Dorminey, William Bright, Ian Bright, Joel Rice Bright, and Rommy Fauzi.

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