Cheek: 'I'm basically a working man'
Cheek has not been at his job long, but
he goes about it has won him a Massey award
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.
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,"
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
He went for a checkup,
but doctors could find nothing wrong.
The next day, he felt
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
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."
This story is the last in a series featuring 2003 winners of
the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. The late C.
Knox Massey of Durham created the awards in 1980 to recognize
"unusual, meritorious or superior contributions" by University
employees. The award is supported by the Massey-Weatherspoon
Fund created by three generations of Massey and Weatherspoon
families. Chancellor James Moeser selected the honorees from
nominations submitted by the campus. They each received an award
citation and $5,000 stipend.