Tragedy changed McNeill's life

At the end of his 34-month battle with brain tumors, Tim McNeill was bedridden, barely lucent and no longer talking.

But he could still smile.

Friends and family say nothing, not even terminal cancer, could extinguish the humor, kindness and love McNeill expressed during his 49 years alive. He died Saturday in his North Augusta home.

The public might remember McNeill in connection with another name: Keenan O' Mailia, a 6-year-old boy who was raped and strangled April 17, 1999. McNeill found Keenan's body the next day during a search of the woods surrounding Riverview Park.

That was a huge and defining moment in McNeill's life, his widow, Cindy McNeill, said Saturday evening. But there was so much more to him than that.

Here's how his family describes him:

McNeill was always a softie. When his wife met him, he worked for a debt collection agency. He was lousy at the job. When his boss went to check on him one day, he found McNeill trying to coax a kitten out from under a car belonging to an old lady that owed money.

He always made breakfast for his two boys, Dylan and Austin, before they went to school. Dylan, 17, is going to Clemson in the fall. His father was wearing a Tigers T-shirt when he died.

McNeill loved to run. The last time he went for a run was in December. He jogged with a group that collected coins from the ground as they trotted down Broad Street and gave the cash to a deserving person.

McNeill had a great sense of humor. After his first operation, his bald head had a long line of stitches across his forehead. He talked his wife into attaching big black screws to the side of his neck with tape. He called himself "Timenstein." His wife refused to wheel him into the pediatric unit.

" I had to put my foot down at some point," she said with a laugh.

Doctors gave him six months to live after he was diagnosed with malignant glioma. On the two-year anniversary of that diagnosis, McNeill took his wife skydiving. He was terrified, but he did it anyway.

In 1999, his children talked him into going to First Baptist Church of North Augusta. The pastor said volunteers were needed to search for a missing boy. McNeill was an Eagle Scout and knew his way around the woods. He told his wife, "I'm going to go find Keenan."

McNeill went home, changed his clothes and joined the search. He got frustrated because the other searchers weren't following proper procedure. So he said the first heartfelt prayer of his life: "God, if you will help me find this boy, my life is yours."

He later told his wife that he felt a warm sensation and what felt like arms around him. McNeill followed his instincts and searched in a gully that had been passed over before. He found Keenan beneath some leaves. The shock was terrible.

He yelled, "I found him, I found him," then ran out of there as fast as he could, stopping only to drop a business card in a police cruiser. When he got home, he hugged his two boys and cried.

The memory of that day changed McNeill. His boys had to change their haircuts because they were too similar to Keenan's. But McNeill took the tragedy and turned it into something positive. He kept his promise and joined the church that week. He founded a charity called Candle of Hope. It was a reminder that everyone should look out for children other than their own, McNeill explained.

The money from candle and T-shirt sales went to community non-profits in North Augusta. More than $10,000 has been raised.

Last week was the first time Cindy McNeill asked her husband about the day he found Keenan. She wondered whether Keenan would take him to heaven. But then she realized that wasn't quite right.

"He had already showed Tim how to get there," she said.