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A touch of class

Hundreds of F.H. Collins Secondary School graduates can tell you about "the oath. It was written on an overhead transparency and stuck to the side of a filing cabinet in Chris McNeill’s Grade 8 classroom.

Hundreds of F.H. Collins Secondary School graduates can tell you about “the oath.”

It was written on an overhead transparency and stuck to the side of a filing cabinet in Chris McNeill’s Grade 8 classroom.

If students bet against the Montreal Canadiens advancing in the playoffs and won, their teacher would treat them to Timbits. But if they lost, McNeill would take great pleasure in watching them drop to their knees and recite the following words.

“Hail Mr. McNeill, who is so mighty and so wise in the ways of all things but especially hockey. We should have listened to you when you told us about the marvelous Montreal Canadiens. We doubted your wisdom and your team and we are not worthy so much to scoop the snow out of the dirty corners of the rink. Please forgive us, we have seen the grievous errors of our ways and we are sorry.”

Not many teachers can claim to have made a classroom of teenagers grovel before them. But, over 20 years, McNeill developed a reputation as someone who was devoted to his students.

He passed away from cancer on Dec. 5, at the age of 48.

McNeill taught the learning assistance program at F.H. for several years before switching over to English and humanities.

In all that time he only took two days of sick leave, said former colleague Christine Klaassen-St. Pierre.

“That wasn’t because he was never sick,” she said, “but because he wanted to be with his students.”

“During lunch time he’d walk around the halls with his guitar, stopping to chat with people. Students felt like he truly cared, because he got to know them.”

McNeill was passionate about Grade 8 and making sure students started high school on the right track, she said.

On the first day of school, he always prepared a song for his class or a “top-10 reasons to be in Grade 8” list.

Parents would line the hallways of F.H. on parent-teacher night to hear him speak about their children. Klaassen-St. Pierre would bring him water because McNeill spent hours talking about his students.

At the end of the school year, he’d always be invited to speak at prom, which he did without fail. He’d walk around to every table with a Pez dispenser, regaling parents with stories about their children.

Michael Toews, a long-time friend and colleague, called McNeill “the best teacher I’ve ever known.”

He said people don’t often realize how hard McNeill worked for his classes.

“He’d be at school on Sundays, marking and prepping,” Toews said.

Instead of embarrassing or punishing students who stepped out of line, McNeill would give them a special spot in his classroom.

“He called it ‘celebrity seating,’” Toews said.

“He always did things with a touch of class. He’s never going to be replaced.”

For his dedication to teaching, McNeill received an Excellence in Education award in 2006.

A proud Nova Scotian and Maritimer, McNeill grew up in Halifax with a passion for hockey and motorcycles.

He was a talented goalie who played until the age of 18, and raced motorbikes around the province.

When he was 19 he met his future wife, Heidi Rumscheidt, and they hit it off right away.

After earning his degree in education, he worked at a private school for children with learning disabilities.

It was in 1994 that he finally made a decision to head west.

Rumscheidt had relatives in Whitehorse who told McNeill he would likely get a job there with his specialized training.

It was all the convincing he needed to hear. He took a train to Jasper, Alta., and a bus the rest of the way.

Within two weeks he had found a job and Rumscheidt joined him a short time after.

“The Yukon bit us both very hard,” Rumscheidt said.

“He loved everything about it.”

McNeill took full advantage of the Yukon’s bountiful natural environment, becoming an avid mountain biker and skier.

He meticulously created three biking trails on Grey Mountain: Cousin’s Connector, Hula Girl and El Camino.

Jane Koepke would often ride with McNeill. She said he was always planning, dreaming and scheming up new ways to connect trails on the mountain.

“A lot of people go and build trails, but what set Chris apart is that he continued to be the steward of those trails,” she said.

“When the City of Whitehorse started formally managing the trail network in 2008, he worked with them to improve the trails. I think of him as a shining example of a trail champion.”

McNeill would always have little saws and other tools in his backpack to clear debris from his trails.

If he wasn’t on his Giant bike, he was back-country skiing or riding one of his Yamaha motorcycles down the highway.

Paul MacDonald met the couple when he moved to Whitehorse in 1996. He said McNeill always lived for the moment and never wasted a minute.

“Chris was also very resourceful and considerate,” he said.

“One day we were riding together and a piece broke off my bike seat. After that, Chris always carried the spare part around, just in case it broke again.

“Another time he came on a ski trip to Jackson, Wyoming with us and we marveled at how well he had packed every single space in his bag. He was always so prepared.”

MacDonald said he used to live in a house that had a reputation for parties. When the night was over, he remembers McNeill walking Rumscheidt home but always coming back to help clean up the house.

“Like my wife would say, he always brought a touch of class to everything,” he said.

McNeill had a quieter side that enjoyed tinkering in his workshop with CBC radio in the background, spending time with his Labrador retrievers and watching British dramas.

“He could watch a Habs game and turn around and watch Downton Abbey,” Rumscheidt said.

“He was also very practical. He got a lot of that from his grandfather.”

McNeill was great with his hands. He built the deck behind his home and once took apart an entire motorcycle just to understand how it worked, Rumscheidt said.

More so he was a tremendous father to his daughter, Annie, and wonderful spouse who was always willing to help but rarely asked for it himself, she said.

During his last days, McNeill received an outpouring of support from hundreds of people who created signs and videos for him, expressing their admiration and respect.

Klaassen-St. Pierre later put the signs up at F.H. One reads, “I hope to be half the teacher you were,” while another says, “You gave me the best year of my life.”

McNeill even received an autographed jersey and book from his idol, former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden.

“A good friend of Chris’s who lives in Toronto managed to get in touch with Dryden a week or two before Chris died,” Rumscheidt said.

“But it turns out Dryden won’t just sign an autography for anyone, he needs to know about the person. Chris’s friend spent an hour with him, telling him how Chris had been a goalie and idolized him growing up.

“It was very touching and it’s also a nice keepsake for our daughter.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at