NEW PORT RICHEY — The first time David Neal battled throat cancer, he was confident he would survive. But he didn't know what he would do with his life once he recovered.
"Who's going to hire a 62-year-old man with throat cancer?" he asked his wife and friends in 1994.
"If you had a magic wand, what would you do?" his wife, Kathan, replied.
Mr. Neal's answer came quickly: He wanted to start a school for mentally disabled adults, training them in basic life skills to help them live independently.
Kathan Neal told him she would take on extra jobs — anything to help him achieve what they called his "impossible dream," after their favorite song, The Impossible Dream, from the musical Man of La Mancha. Mr. Neal had wanted to work with mentally disabled adults ever since volunteering at the Kiwanis Aktion Club.
"They adored him, and he adored them, and that's how it started," Kathan Neal said. "He started to find out how beautiful they are."
Over the next 15 years, Mr. Neal built the Red Apple Adult Training Center from a tiny rented space on Main Street with five students into a four-building nonprofit with 119 students and 49 staff members. The school was constantly on the verge of folding while Mr. Neal worked to secure more funding.
From the beginning, he told the staff, he was "the founder, the teacher, promoter, chauffeur and janitor" of Red Apple. He set up the school in 1995, welcomed his first student in September 1996 and expanded to three employees and a second building by 2003. The school grew slowly, through word of mouth and support from community organizations.
The second time Mr. Neal battled cancer, he had a job to see through.
"He wasn't ready yet," said Steve Giammichele, Red Apple's executive director, who started working with Neal as a behavioral specialist in 2001. "He used to say, 'God knows I've got more work to do here.' "
In remission for nearly 15 years, Mr. Neal learned in late 2009 that he had spots of cancer in his lungs and on his hip. Despite enduring chemotherapy and triple bypass surgery in January, doctors told him in June that the cancer had metastasized to his brain and other parts of his body.
He died Monday (July 19, 2010) at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. He was 76.
Neal was born on April 6, 1934, in Saugus, Mass., where he was raised by Irish Catholic parents. He completed several college credits but never graduated. Eventually he became a salesman, rising to the post of national sales manager for the New York-based Empire Staple Co.
He and Kathan met in 1970, married and lived in Massachusetts before moving to Florida in 1987. In New Port Richey, Mr. Neal was a member of the Kiwanis, the Knights of Columbus and the board of directors of the city's parks and recreation department.
The watch that colleagues gave Mr. Neal when he retired about five years ago from Red Apple was engraved with the words: "You have reached your impossible dream."
But Mr. Neal never truly retired, family friend John Brough said. Most days he could be found at Red Apple or on the phone with Red Apple staffers.
A joker and a born salesman, he liked to walk around the school telling the adult students to smile, Giammichele said.
Mr. Neal is survived by his wife, Kathan; his two children, David Jr. and Erika; and seven grandchildren.
Years after Mr. Neal founded Red Apple, his grandson, Erik, was diagnosed with autism.
"Eventually, his grandson will benefit from what David has started," Brough said.