Just call me Flo

Florence Rose Neal was born into a large and loving Norwegian family on Camano Island, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, an idyllic spot encircled by Puget Sound and stately Douglas firs, and watched over by the distant snow crowned Olympic Mountains. Her hardworking parents spoke Norwegian and they all learned the hard language of living off the land.

flo's family copy
The Karo family. Florence is upper right.

While still a child, the family moved to Colorado where life was demanding and money was tight. At fourteen Florence went to work so her youngest sister, Peggy, could graduate from high school.

One day a handsome, young evangelist named John Neal drove up to the boarding house in Uravan, where Florence worked. He was ten years her senior, but his deep faith and snazzy new car won her heart. When John left town, the spunky and fair nineteen-year-old left with him as Mrs. John Neal, her name from then on.

John and Florence Neal 1939
Rev. and Mrs. John Neal

John was a warm hearted, charismatic man with black curly hair and dark Cherokee skin. He abandoned a lucrative career as a tool and die maker to follow his call to ministry, and for the next fifty years, Brother and Sister Neal became the spiritual force that would bring hundreds into the Kingdom in southern California, Oregon, and Washington. They had five children: John was first (after this dad was “John A” and son was “John R”) and the twins, Karon and Karl, arrived three years later. Peter and Rodney showed up twelve and fifteen years later, rather like a second family. Their ministry blossomed as the children grew. They built churches and potlucked their way into the lives of many who still cherish their commitment and uncommon hospitality.

john, flo, and kids copy
John R. standing up, the twins are on laps.

Those were the days when men were the breadwinners and made the decisions. Wives kept house, cooked, and raised their families. Pastor’s wives also ran the Women’s Missionary Society, the local PTA, sang in the choir, and made home make chicken and noodles for church dinners. If she could have played the piano, she probably would have done that, too.

Florence Neal (center) South L.A. Sunday school celebration 1951
Florence, center

Florence was the consummate pastor’s wife with her bubbly personality, outgoing hospitality, and overflowing love of people. Above all, she was a prayer warrior. She and John A., who also had a contagious, enthusiastic faith, saw many divine healings and marvelous salvation experiences. Many men and women credit the Neals with their call to ministry.

Change

As often happens, life became more complicated as the children grew up. John A. briefly changed careers and then moved into and out of a grueling pastorate unlike those of his early years. Karon and Karl had four different high schools. John R moved on. John A. and Florence maintained their pattern. An opportunity would come up and, although Florence prayed with him about it, John A. made the decisions and she followed. It wasn’t her place to question but to follow.

John, Mom, Karon, Dad, Karl, Pete, and Rod August 1965
Dave and Karon’s wedding day: back, l. to r: John R., Florence, Karon, John A., Karl; front, l. to r: Peter, Rodney

Lodi, California (where I met them all), Salem, Oregon, and then Seattle Washington ensued. There were rewarding milestones along the way as the older kids married and started having families, but pastoring was becoming more difficult and it was taking its toll. Peter and Rodney were growing up and in high school. In Seattle, Mom began working full time to revitalize a day care at the Seattle church. Frankly, she was magnificent! The day care flourished remarkably. With her eighth-grade education, state licensing could have been a problem. However, she so impressed the examiner with her know-how, administrative skills, and curriculum development that they approved her—and the Day Care—with flying colors. Meanwhile, Pastor Neal struggled with depression, frustration, and conflict within the church. Seemingly endless rain and the dismal gloom of sunless days weighed heavily on him and they returned to California. Brief pastorates followed there and in Nevada—with another declining day care for Flo to revitalize—but Dad’s age and fifty-three years of pastoring caught up with him, and they finally retired.

A second start

With minimal social security and an insignificant pension, they had to find an economical place to live with some way to earn additional income. Karl lived in Sierra Vista, Arizona, which was the perfect spot. They bought a few acres of land and set up a mobile home park that would support them. The freedom from pastoring, abundant sunshine, and the wide open spaces of the high desert brought healing. Florence (few people called her Sister Neal any more) worked as a nurse’s aide and did the bookkeeping for their business. Dad found derelict mobile homes in the classifieds and together they cleaned them up, and built porches. Dad clambered onto rooftops and repaired swamp coolers and Mom fumigated desperate appliances and restored them to a pristine and sparkling state. On Sundays Dad filled in as interim preacher. Life was good for the next few years.

John and Flo 1986 Dad's 75th birthday
John A. and Florence 1986, Dad’s 75th birthday

Failing health and bad knees eventually forced Dad off the roofs and they sold the mobile home park and moved to Tucson. This would be their last move together. Decreasing mobility from Parkinson’s disease and increasing dementia (Alzheimer’s was never formally diagnosed) crippled Dad. Mom barely escaped an emotional and physical breakdown caring for Dad, who no longer recognized her, referring to her as “that woman who works so hard.” She dressed him and made sure he always looked good. Weeks of little sleep and Dad’s unpredictable behavior pushed her to the breaking point, yet she soldiered on. It never occurred to her to find a facility where he could be cared for by professionals. She was the wife. It was her obligation. At the breaking point, she finally arranged for a hospice facility, but just one week after taking up residence there, he passed away. It was February 11, 1994. For the first time in her life, she was alone.

 Transition

For the next three years, Mom—like most widows—struggled to find herself. Profound loneliness descended upon her. She had always been Mrs. John A. Neal, and John A. was gone. Who was she? How would she survive? After a couple of years, she was floundering. Then, three years after Dad’s death, her granddaughter, Jodi, and her husband, Tom, invited her to live with them and help care for their two little boys.

TJ and Curtis 1997
T.J., left, and Curtis: 1997

It was a godsend; an important step in establishing her new identity. She had a family again and the little boys were a breath of fresh air each day.

Karon and Mom April 27, 2002
Karon and Florence at a welcome party in Anderson

In 2002 she moved across the country to Anderson, IN where we lived, and took an apartment at Harter House, a retirement community where two meals were provided and yet she had her independence. She established herself at South Meridian Church of God where we were pastors, and developed some strong friendships. During the next couple of years she became a vital and positive force in the Harter House community, but she began to realize that she was not ready for group housing and, when we moved to Columbus, Ohio as pastors at Meadow Park Church of God, she followed, renting an apartment overlooking a small lake and not far from the church.

 Just call me Flo

Columbus was a new place and Flo emerged from the ten years of becoming. It isn’t that being Mrs. John A. Neal was bad. It’s that she discovered a whole new person inside that was not tied to a profession or another person. As we introduced her to everyone at church, she responded with, “Just call me Flo!” She had been learning many things along that path. We watched in amazement as she taught us what she was learning.

It’s okay to be yourself. It’s all right to have an opinion and to voice your preferences. It’s okay to set boundaries. In fact, it’s critical to mental health. She learned to say “no” to those who would abuse her generous spirit, leaving her broke on more than one occasion. After so many years of squeezing into the role of pastor’s wife and putting the expectations of others ahead of her own needs, she chose to minister where she wanted, and not in the places others said she should. She was more than Mrs. John A. Neal now; she was Flo, pure and simple.

Not setting boundaries had almost destroyed her. Caregiving is exhausting and can be perilous. Mom’s generation grew up with a profound sense of duty, sometimes to the point of self destruction. There’s much to celebrate in this attitude, and many of us have benefited from those who have served us so faithfully. However, setting boundaries is crucial to mental and physical health, especially with loved ones. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one will.

Mom discovered that certain things she had always done could now be done without the encumbrances of being the pastor’s wife. Her gift of teaching evolved into being an active participant in an adult Sunday school class. (She said she was too nervous to teach any more.) There she shared the spiritual lessons she had learned in a lifetime rich with experiences and wisdom. Many in the congregation benefited and grew to love her.

Always a prayer warrior, she enlarged her focus, keeping a three-ring binder jammed with handwritten requests that she jotted on bulletins and that people slipped into her purse. She especially focused on three areas: her apartment building, the youth in our congregation, and those who were discouraged or ill that could use a visit. She and a friend from church regularly visited those on the church prayer list. People began to come by her apartment for prayer, or bring others for encouragement. Over Scrabble, she counseled young mothers and new Christians. (That didn’t mean she would cut you any slack if you misspelled a word!)

Flo heard that the youth group needed counselors. She was the oldest person to volunteer! Of course, all-night lock-ins and paintball excursions were beyond her. She couldn’t sit on the floor anymore. But she could attend meetings and activities where she ate pizza and kept notes in her prayer journal. She invited some of the youth to her apartment on Sunday after church, where she had prepared special treats and introduced them to Scrabble (no doubt beating them soundly).

Her deep passion to win others to Christ was evidenced in her supreme joy of living, whether riding a roller coaster

Flo on ferris wheel Columbus, OH 2007
Flo at the Ohio State Fair

or greeting all of the employees by name at the local Kroger store. And at the bank.  And at the filling station. She felt that God was inviting her out of her comfort zone and she began to reach out to the many Asians moving into her apartment. Her unique introduction to a new resident was to take them a dish of Jell-o along with a big smile. Her bubbly personality and that Christ-filled smile overcame many a language barrier. Two young Korean men in Columbus enrolled at the Ohio State University became her adopted sons. She brought them to church and, when they graduated, was invited to the celebration dinner with their parents, who flew over from Korea (the only non-family present)! She took books to an elderly Indian neighbor who she was delighted to discover was not only a Christian but also an avid reader. All day long he had sat alone while his adult children were away at work—until Flo showed up, God’s sunshine to a stranger in a foreign land. She hosted a Bible study in her apartment and became friends with a young Japanese woman hungry for friendship. That young woman accepted Christ and later drove all the way from Cincinnati for her memorial service.

Flo, John, Karl, Karon, Pete, & Rodney 2004 60th b-day K&K 001
Flo and her five kids at Karon and Karl’s 60th birthday party; l. to r: Karl, John R., Flo, Karon, Peter, Rodney in 2004

In short, Flo, an eighth-grade graduate, a pastor’s wife with five children, a day care and preschool director who brought in educational curriculum that was the best in Seattle, a nurses’ aide in Veteran’s Hospitals, the local Florence Nightingale in her Arizona community, a beloved prayer partner to scores of people, a beloved grandma and great grandma (known simply as “Great”)—that Flo—became more passionate, effective, and loved in her eighties than most of us become in our entire lives.

December 20, 2007, was going to be a full day. She had attended two Christmas parties that week and was going to meet Karon to attend a third. But she never arrived. On the way she had a heart attack that allowed her to slow down, steer off the road, miss fire hydrants, cars, and telephone poles, and come to a stop on the grass across from the church where she stepped into heaven at the age of 86. At her memorial service, just three years after arriving in Columbus, over 250 stayed after the service for a potluck dinner (several brought Jell-o in her honor) where they took two hours at the open mike telling what she had meant to them. One gentleman concluded by saying, “Life is best when you ‘go with the Flo!”

“The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him” is attributed to the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who lived his life with the goal of seeing what God could do if he were totally committed to him. Some of us were blessed to witness God’s light shining through another committed person: a woman named Flo, who wanted nothing more than to be a witness for Christ. And to win at Scrabble.

Flo Christmas 2006
Flo  at Christmas 2006

.

Aging Change Faith Journey Hope Loss Pastoring Self-Image Success

dshultz108 View All →

David Shultz enjoys mountain views in Arizona where he lives with his wife and two dogs, Molly and Maggie.

9 Comments Leave a comment

  1. What a beautiful tribute to a memerable and wonderful lady!!! It was indeed a privelage and honor to know our dear
    “FLO” . Dan and I , along with so many, were blessed to be in the Something More Class with Flo at Meadow Park, where we were always inspired by her comments and loving, caring ways. Oh, how we loved her!!!!!

    Like

  2. Hi Dave and Karon,

    Lots of memories came to mind as I read your colorful and insightful bio of Flo’s life. I recall so well my Jr High years with the congregation in South LA … and … high school years – PBC summers at the Normandy location with John and Florence as our Pastoral team. We drove from our home in Hollywood to the church locations before the freeways were completed … counting the stoplights on Western Ave., our usual route

    Jeannine met my parents for the first time when the PBC choir came to the Normandy location while on tour. She sang in a duet that evening accompanied by her knocking knees. Mom was a children’s teacher and Dad was an usher in the congregation at that time.

    I also feel honored to be one of the several young people who received a call to pastoral ministry from the Lord under their ministry and pastoral care. I still have the Thompson Chain Reference Bible that John and the congregation gave to me when I left home to enroll at PBC in 1952 … .with his challenge to me written in the fly leaf.

    I recall the evening we visited with John and Florence in their Lodi home when their WPC cheerleader daughter was home on vacation … telling all of us about the guy on campus that she wanted to spend her life with!

    I share your joy in knowing that Flo had wonderful years of expanded ministry as she lived near you in Anderson and Columbus.

    Jeannine has always looked to Flo as an energetic example of what a pastor’s wife can become as she serves alongside her husband in ministry. No doubt she set the bar higher than the Lord asked of her at times and, as you have described so well, paid a high price for doing so. She did these things with all of her heart, calling attention to the Lord, not herself, and the Lord supplied whatever was needed to keep her close to Him and her family.

    Thank you for telling their story and the rest of her story!

    With our love, Jerry and Jeannine

    Sent: Friday, April 21, 2017 4:19 PM To: pnajerry@comcast.net Subject: [New post] Just call me Flo

    dshultz108 posted: “Florence Rose Neal was born into a large and loving Norwegian family on Camano Island, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, an idyllic spot encircled by Puget Sound and stately Douglas firs, and watched over by the distant snow crowned Olympic Mountains.”

    Like

  3. Dave, what a wonderful tribute to Flo and I love the photos through the years. You created a wonderful precise memory of who she was. Can you imagine how she is stirring things up in Heaven? Love to you all, Ceresa

    Like

  4. What a beautiful tribute! I was fortunate enough to call her “Aunt.” Growing up and spending time with Uncle John and Aunt Flo are some of my favorite memories. I can still see her beautiful smile and hear her laugh. I have such wonderful memories. I was so lucky to have her as part of my life.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: