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Navajo Educator and Grandmother Grace McNeley Walks On

Grace McNeley, Navajo educator, mentor and kind spirit, died at her home in McElmo Canyon, Colorado, July 25.
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By request of the McNeley family this obituary is authored and submitted by her friend Sonja Horoshko

Grace McNeley, educator, mentor and kind spirit, died at her home in McElmo Canyon, Colorado, July 25. She was born in Ship Rock, N.M. to Jessie Dodge and Peter Lee on June 9, 1934. After her mother’s death from tuberculosis her paternal grandparents raised her at home in the Ship Rock Farm area. She remembered her childhood as a happy time when her grandfather plowed in the old way with a big old wooden plow and her grandmother fulfilled the traditional woman’s roll raising the children and tending to the Hogan.

When her grandparents died, Grace’s two maternal uncles, John and Chee Dodge adopted her and her siblings and moved them to Rico, Colorado, where the uncles worked in the sulpheric acid mines that were producing extraction fluids for the uranium industry.

It was a happy childhood in the mountain community. Mixed into her charming stories about life in the rural school were also stories of the reality of Navajo people working in the mines away from their homes and families. She described clouds of fumes and the noxious aroma that covered the town.

Her time enrolled as a student there with her siblings offered a solid foundation for her future. The education she received in Rico was enhanced during those formative years by her Uncle Chee. He influenced the direction of her life, reminding her of her destiny to get an education.

Grace moved to Los Angeles, California and lived in a Catholic boarding house for girls while working at an insurance company. A few years later she returned to the Southwest to pursue teaching by enrolling at Northern Arizona University for the additional English and education courses she needed.

When finished, she was hired to teach in the elementary school at Tohatchi, N.M.

Grace married her husband, James McNeley at the Catholic Church in Tohatchi and lived in the teacher housing there, where all who knew them agree that it was the beginning of a delightful life together.

Jim’s acceptance in the doctoral program in Hawaii took them both to Honolulu. She began teaching at Kamehameha High School, a public school reserved for Native Hawaiian students.

Diné College hired her during the second year of its inception when it was still named Navajo Community College. During those initial founding years at the college, her husband was doing research for his doctoral thesis on Navajo behavioral concepts. He says that during that time Grace continued enrolling in graduate courses at University of New Mexico, coming and going from the Diné campus to advance her education.

She was granted a scholarship and admission to St. Johns. She loved the learning there, graduated with her Master of Arts in liberal education and found methods of incorporating the knowledge she garnered at St. Johns into her classroom at Diné College. Grace taught English and philosophy at Diné College for more than 30 years.

During that time Jim and Grace raised their son, Glen, who says that, “She was a compassionate teacher, so vivacious. The Catholic Church took her in when she was a little girl, encouraged her, nurtured her intellect and gave her opportunities that she needed to become an educator and mentor to so many people, yet she remained solidly a traditional Navajo woman and mother.”

In 2009, the graduating class at Diné College asked Grace to deliver their commencement address at the Ship Rock Campus. On that morning, the critical importance of teaching was reflected back to her and she considered delaying her retirement. The cancer that had invaded her bone marrow three years earlier was under control. She felt confident about the future. But the next morning she awakened with a neuropathy that proved to be too painfully debilitating. She resigned her position and remained at home surrounded by the family and friends.

She is of the Naakaii Diné’é clan’, born for Kin yaa’ aanii. She is survived by her husband Jim and son Glen, his wife Charmain, and their four children Mary, Melea, Sierra and Glen Golden McNeley II, bi yáázh Jerry Antone dóó Larry Smiley, and numerous nieces and nephews.

She was preceded in death by her siblings Mary, Glen and Juanita Lee, and her parents.

In honor of Grace McNeley:


By Mary McNeley

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She fought her battle for way too long.

It’s sad to think that she has gone.

We need to keep our heads up because

she taught us to be strong

and never forget

she’s who kept us together.

She’s not here, but she remains

in our hearts forever.

Grandma rised from the rock bottom to reach success.

Seeing her in the hospital bed brought a lot of stress.

Losing her made my life a mess.

But even though she’s gone she is still with me.

I know she left, but it’s hard to believe

I love you Grandma with all my heart.

You had our backs right from the start.

Can you imagine my sorrow when we drifted apart?

Your love was creative.

I guess you can call it art.