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Neal Cheek: ‘I’m basically a working man’

Maybe there is no such thing as an ordinary life. Or, for that matter, an ordinary job.

Neal Cheek doesn’t think so. And people who get to know Cheek and get to see him working at his job don’t think so either.

Because there is something extraordinary about the way he goes about it.

In a place where success is often measured in titles, vitae, the size of a paycheck and, sometimes, a claim to a good parking space, Cheek counts his success the old-fashioned way: in the satisfaction earned from an honest day’s work.

His official title at the University is “maintenance mechanic,” but a better name for him might be “Mr. Fix-it.”

Lights burn out. Pipes burst. Sinks get clogged. Toilets overflow. Other people can get the job done, but few do it with the same dispatch — or disposition — as Cheek.

He is a working man, he is quick to tell you, as proud of his work as he is happy he has the work to do.

Other people are happy about his work, too, as was evidenced earlier this year when Cheek received a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

At the time he was nominated for the award, Cheek’s area of responsibility covered four residence halls — Alderman, Kenan, McIver and Spencer — that were home to 475 students.

“He takes on each challenge with an incredible attitude,” said one of those students. “A problem barely needs mentioning before he is on top of it,” said another.

A co-worker who receives requests for service at Facilities Services said Cheek is the kind of guy who does the kind of work that makes a lasting impression. Most of the time, when she gets a call to get something fixed, the request is to “send over the maintenance guy.” In Cheek’s area, the request is, “Would you please ask Neal” to do the job.

J. Kala Bullett, the community director in the Department of Housing and Residential Education, nominated Cheek for the award.

“One of the best things I’ve heard said repeatedly about Neal is, `You don’t ever have to ask him to fix something — he’s going to come out and find out if anything’s wrong,'” Bullett said.

Bullett said there is another side to consider in the relationship that has developed between Cheek and the students. In many ways, he has something to teach them that their professors cannot.

Bullett said many students come from a world of comfort and privilege far different from the world that most housekeepers and maintenance staff know. Cheek and others like him, by forming a bond of respect and friendship with students, “makes it possible for students to learn from people who are different from them,” Bullett said.

His wife Karen, the parking services coordinator in the Department of Public Safety, said her husband never learned the dictum about not taking your job home with you.

“He shares his day,” Karen said. “He’s proud of what he does, and he wants you to know about it. He’s always talking about students and the compliments he gets from them. He doesn’t meet strangers.”

Cheek said his relationship with students is tied in part to his awareness that the whole enterprise of the University is about and for students — his job included.

“I know the reason why I’m here is to get the job done,” Cheek said. “The students come first. I know if they weren’t here I wouldn’t be here, either. I wouldn’t have a job doing what I’m doing. I’m very grateful.”

The chicken catcher

When asked his age, Cheek qualified his response this way: “37 with five kids. That will make you old quick.”

He was born Sept. 4, 1966, the ninth of 10 children.

His father supported his family by working for close to 30 years in a Chatham County poultry plant. His mother ended up working at the plant, too, as did Cheek when he quit his Pittsboro high school at the age of 15.

School never agreed with him, but work always has, even work that involved pulling and packing chicken parts off an assembly line for $5.75 an hour.

He stayed at the job eight years, then moved on to work as a “live haul” man — traveling to chicken houses all over the region to stuff live chickens into cages bound for the slaughterhouse.

They worked at night and cast the huge chicken barns in a red light that calmed the birds to the point that they could be herded to one side of the barn where they could be picked up by their legs. Cheek learned how to hook the legs between his fingers, catching with his right hand at first and holding with his left. He got good enough to be able to carry up to 15 at a time — always starting with four or five between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.

A crew of 10 could crate as many as 50,000 chickens in a single night’s work, Cheek said. And the numbers counted because they all got paid, not by the hour, but by the pound.

In the daytime, Cheek often put in as many hours as he did at night working with two older brothers, who owned and operated a heating and air-conditioning business in Raleigh.

In 1996, Cheek signed on with the University as a temporary worker in Facilities Services.

As a temp, Cheek filled in as a helper at different shops. He turned the opportunity into a classroom. He watched and learned enough to be able to do, as he puts it, “a little plumbing, a little electrical, a little carpentry.”

His sister, Angelette Cheek, worked in housekeeping and knew Curtis Wilson, Cheek’s current supervisor. When a permanent opening for a maintenance mechanic opened up in the residence halls, Cheek’s sister introduced Cheek to Wilson. That was about four years ago.

His life, at that point, seemed to be on a roll. In fall of 2001, Karen had their fifth child. They named the baby girl Khaliyah, a name that Cheek confessed he still has a hard time spelling.

It was not long after she was born that her daddy almost died.

Cheating death

Cheek remembers being at his mother’s house the Sunday before the meltdown, playing on the floor with his kid and feeling like he was coming down with something by the time he got home that he thought was the flu.

It was December of 2001.

By Monday, he felt bad enough to miss work, and the day after that, and the day after that.

He went for a checkup, but doctors could find nothing wrong.

The next day, he felt even worse.

On Friday, he and his wife went out to do Christmas shopping, and he was startled at how weak he had become. Going outside to retrieve a box from the truck left him feeling wobbly and out of breath.

By Saturday morning, he was having trouble breathing, and shortly before noon Karen drove him to the emergency room of UNC Hospitals.

Doctors rushed him almost immediately into the intensive care unit thinking he was experiencing a major heart attack.

“The next thing I knew, they put a mask on me, and after that I was out from that Saturday until I woke up Wednesday,” Cheek said of the experience.

Karen said her husband missed out on most of the real drama.

By 7 p.m., she said, he was lying motionless in a drug-induced coma. His lungs had begun to fill with fluid and his kidneys had shut down. Doctors urged her to summon family members to the hospital for last goodbyes.

Karen got on the phone as the doctors told her to do, but she wasn’t ready yet to accept the verdict that her husband would die. She didn’t ask people to come to the hospital that night. Instead, she asked them to pray in church the next morning.

And pray they did, Karen said, in churches scattered from Sanford to the coast.

By Wednesday, he was awake and breathing on his own.

The initial diagnosis — heart attack — proved to be wrong. Further tests revealed that Cheek was suffering from a rare disease called myocarditis that can be carried by a virus and inflames the heart muscle.

Among the indicators of the disease are fatigue, fever and shortness of breath — all symptoms that Cheek had experienced throughout the week.

If left unattended, it can lead to congestive heart failure of the kind that Cheek experienced that Saturday morning, which explained why doctors earlier that day had interpreted electrocardiogram readings as indicators of a massive heart attack.

Doctors talked about the possibility of a heart transplant but put him on a diet and exercise regimen instead that, with medication, have helped his heart to recover. He may not be as good as new, Cheek said, but close enough to it not to complain.

He was back home within a week and back to work by spring.

“He’s been told he’s the miracle man,” Karen said. “It was truly a miracle.”

Man on the move

He holds no fancy degrees.

He probably will never have a big bank account, either, or a high-sounding title.

But in every way that counts Cheek’s life is rich. He is grateful for what he has — his job, his family, his life.

The Massey award, in many ways, served as affirmation of those facts, said Karen.

“I am very proud of my husband’s personal accomplishments which extend beyond his occupation,” Karen said. “I love his spirit, but most of all I love him for who he is.”

Karen said her husband works at their home in Sanford about the same way he does at work. As soon as he gets up, he’s cooking breakfast for the kids. He picks up and cleans up around the house, then heads outside to cut grass or wash cars.

“He loves to grill and fry chicken,” Karen said. “He’s an expert at that.”

Does that mean he does most of the cooking?

“I said grill and fry chicken,” she said. “You do have to have side dishes.”

No husband is perfect, she said, not even hers.

Their oldest daughter Chasity is now a freshman at Fayetteville State University.

Their twin boys, Kevin and Kyle, are 8. Their middle girl, Nakayla, is 5. The baby Khaliyah is now 2.

Because of renovations on campus, Cheek moved in September to work a new area of residence halls where Pete Trentacoste serves as the community director. Already, Trentacoste said, Cheek has made an impression.

“He’s very personable, very approachable. If I ask him to do something, it’s pretty much done that day,” Trentacoste said.

“A lot of the time I can see Neal from my office, and he’s usually on the move. He’s not the kind of guy you see sitting around a lot. If you see Neal, he’s working.”

As he has all his life.

“I’m basically a working man,” Cheek said. “That’s what I do. And I love it.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Nov. 19, 2003

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