Tammy McNeeley's Dreams Live on Through Scholarship
Tammy McNeeley graduated from the School of Health Professions in 1997, but her name remains a familiar one within the school.
"Hers was and is a great story about persistence," said Sherry Sancibrian, MS, CCC-SLP, ('78) professor and program director for Speech-Language Pathology in the School of Health Professions.
Tammy originally was selected as an alternate for the Class of 1997. Because of the program's competitive reputation, the odds of her getting into the program were not in her favor; Tammy promised to beat the odds. Sancibrian recalls the phone call she made to her in July 1995 to let Tammy know of her selection not as a student, but an alternate.
"I tried to break the news to her easily," Sancibrian said. "She told me she was convinced (Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center) was the place she was supposed to be and felt certain she would see us in August."
About two weeks later, Tammy got the call from Sancibrian that, interestingly enough, there was a student who had to drop from the program, which meant an opening for Tammy.
"She was one that would prove you wrong every time," said her mother, Elaine McNeeley.
And Tammy did time and again. Her passion for TTUHSC and for a career in helping those with speech disabilities was one example.
Larry McNeeley explained how his daughter began her studies as a music major at Baylor University but switched her second year to communication disorders after being mentored by a friend from her hometown of Granbury, Texas.
Only the best will do
"Tammy was accepted to a handful of graduate programs, but she wanted only the best – and in her mind that was Texas Tech," said her dad.
The summer before her second year in the master's program, Tammy discovered a lump under her arm and initially thought cat scratch fever. Elaine said her classmates had formed a strong bond with Sancibrian, during her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.
"That bond strengthened for Tammy after she got cancer," Elaine added.
Tammy's diagnosis was instead melanoma, which had already spread to the lymph nodes. The cancer later metastasized to Tammy's brain. She insisted, however, in continuing with her studies. During one spring semester, Tammy traveled to MD Anderson for surgery to remove the tumor and was back at TTUHSC for class later that month.
Sancibrian held Tammy's work ethic as a standard.
"Students would come and ask for an extra day or two on an assignment," Sancibrian said. "My response often was, 'Tammy already has hers turned in.' They finally got to the point where they first would ask if Tammy had turned in her assignment. If so, they wouldn't even bother asking for the extension."
"For Tammy, she just wanted to get it done and out of the way; but I think her determination helped a lot of others as well," said Elaine.
Battling for what she believed in
Tammy valiantly fought through her master's coursework all the while battling cancer. The last semester, she was taking an injectable form of chemotherapy on top of an oral regimen while undergoing radiation on her head, and neck, said her mother.
When graduation day came, Tammy walked across the stage with her original class, and then was admitted to a Fort Worth hospital two days later. Sancibrian and three other departmental faculty (Raymond Linville, PhD, Rajinder Kohl, PhD and Dwayne Paschall, PhD,) delivered Tammy's diploma to her bedside. She died the following day.
"I think there came a time during her illness that she knew she would never get to practice, but she refused to give up on her dream," Elaine said.
In return, Tammy's 11 classmates refused to let her legacy die. They pooled their finances upon hearing of her death and established a scholarship with the help of the local chapter of the National Student Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Within a year, the scholarship was endowed, thanks in part to Tammy's parents and her sister, Wendy McNeeley, PhD.
Class of 1997
Kara (Kulig) Tibor
Tammy McNeeley (third from right)
Lori (Willis) Sanders
Stephanie (Yotz) Hedman
Carrying Tammy's Torch
Today, 15 students have received the Tammy McNeeley Memorial Endowed Scholarship.
Candace Moore, MS, CCC-SLP, ('01, '99) was one of them. She learned of Tammy's legacy as an undergraduate and was the 2000 recipient of her memorial scholarship.
"I knew she was a kind, loving person, the same as her family," Moore said. "She was always giving back and was one of those people who made a difference because of how she treated people. Tammy was always one of those you wanted to be like.
"For me, it (receiving the scholarship) was not only financial support but also emotional; I had a tough time as an undergraduate, having several family members battle illnesses. To receive that scholarship meant that someone recognized my academic efforts and passion.
"In turn, I felt it was my job to carry Tammy's torch; I was overwhelmed and honored that they chose me to do that."
After graduating, Moore joined Shallowater ISD where she continues to serve middle and high school students who have communication disabilities.
Moore said she had lost contact with the McNeeleys through the years, but often thought of searching for them on Google, just to let them know what she is doing.
Instead she got to tell them in person at a dinner hosted in September by the Office of Institutional Advancement and the School of Health Professions, honoring the McNeeleys and marking the 15th anniversary of their daughter's scholarship.
Laura Zupancic, MS, CCC-SLP, ('02, '00) received the scholarship in 2001 and has also often thought of trying to reconnect with the McNeeleys after meeting them. In fact, Zupancic's desire to make a memory book for the McNeeleys inspired the commemorative dinner – and she got the opportunity to catch up with them in person.
"I'm just grateful that the McNeeley family added to my spirit of generosity that I try to put forth every day," said Zupancic, who is in her 10th year as a speech-language pathologist for Lubbock Independent School District.
The McNeeleys have also tried to keep up with the students through the years, said Sancibrian. Since Tammy's death, they have faithfully attended the department's spring banquet each year, when the scholarship is awarded.
At the commemorative dinner, Larry grinned with pride, and wiped away a few tears, as the former students gave brief updates on their careers – each thanking the McNeeleys for their support.
"The things that were done for Tammy meant so much, how could we have not given back?" said Larry. "We would have done all we could to support Tammy's ability and career; the least we can do is support what she wanted to be part of and what she so strongly believed in."
Seven former scholarship recipients attended the dinner in September honoring the McNeeleys and several more sent remarks updating the family on their lives and careers and thanking the family for the opportunity to help fulfill Tammy's dream. [Click here to read their stories.]