The Family That Gives Together

For Margaret and George McNeill and their family, life is about so much more than just making a living

Scott Rollans - 05 January 2017

Every year, George and Margaret McNeill would give each of their young children a sum of money and the freedom to donate to a cause of their own choosing. The idea was sparked by the couple's realization of how much satisfaction they had gained from philanthropy - a feeling they weren't able to experience until they were older and more established. What a shame, they thought, that people had to wait most of their lives to experience that satisfaction.

Which is why they decided to create and fund the McNeill Family Foundation, and to allot each of their children - and eventually their grandchildren - money to invest in those causes of their own choosing. These days, the youngest children are responsible for a few hundred dollars each, while older family members have thousands of dollars at their disposal. The McNeills, in other words, have designed a formal system to encourage a family culture of giving - and one that will long outlive them.

"They'll do a far bigger, better job than we did, because they get started at 15 years old," George says. "We didn't get started until we were 50 years old."

The family has a long history of working well together, ever since they decided to purchase a failing nursing home in Springfield, Mass., in 1972. George, a pioneering expert in electronics, had taken a challenging job at Monsanto's plastics plant in the city and Margaret was working at a local hospital - but they decided it was time to try their hand as entrepreneurs.

In short order, the facility had built a reputation as Springfield's finest nursing home, doubling capacity to 168 beds (with an extensive waiting list). Over the next 16 years, the couple added two more care facilities. George eventually took early retirement from Monsanto to join Margaret in the family business full time.

All four of their children worked at the nursing homes at one time or another, part of the McNeills' philosophy about developing yourself in the workplace. At 14, the kids would tackle simpler jobs such as helping in the laundry. Older kids gradually took on more responsibility. Their daughter eventually became director of nurses.

The nursing home quickly developed a reputation as a vibrant, happy place with well-trained and satisfied staff. "The patients really loved to sing, and we got the idea of a kitchen band," Margaret recalls. They helped the residents create makeshift instruments by soldering kitchen gadgets onto kazoos. They fabricated washtub drums and made a bass out of an old washtub, a rope and a pole. Riding in a converted school bus, the band became a popular fixture at events around town.

It might all sound like a lot of togetherness, but George and Margaret have been an inseparable team since their high school days in Edmonton. At the University of Alberta, despite their workloads, they always found time for each other. "Either I'd ride my bike to the nurses' residence, or she'd walk over to my parents' house, and we'd have coffee every night," George recalls.

Margaret even found time to help with George's extracurricular activities. "I was on the intra-varsity wrestling team and Marg was my coach for after-hours practice," George says with a wink. "We played a lot of chesterfield rugby."

Of course there was time for study, as well. Margaret and George both graduated from UAlberta in 1952, she with a degree in nursing and he with a degree in electrical engineering. George says the quality - and diversity - of education he received at UAlberta has helped him navigate the variety of career paths he's travelled down since graduation. Civil work, real estate - even in negotiations with the State of Massachusetts - in every case, George drew on skills learned at the university.

Of course there are also benefits of a degree that you can't quantify. "University is where you really began to change from a wild kid to accomplishing things in the world," George says.

It was natural, then, that the McNeills would include UAlberta in their extensive charitable work, long investing in their respective faculties. George established a scholarship designed to support engineering students. Margaret, who still faithfully meets her nursing classmates at reunions (most recently, this year), donates annually to the UAlberta Hospital research programs.

These days, the McNeills divide their retirement time among a home in Jupiter, Fla., a real estate business in Houston and their family cottage in Massachusetts. Their investments now are geared toward family and philanthropy. Once a year, they invite their extended family for a Caribbean holiday. "We tell them we're taking them on a ski vacation," Margaret says. "That's S-K-I: spend kids' inheritance."

And then there's the family foundation. The McNeills glow with pride as they describe how their children and grandchildren have absorbed the benefits of giving. A grandson in Chicago, for example, has become highly active in United Way's youth leadership group. "They get really involved in it," George says.

In short, George and Margaret say, their children and grandchildren have learned an essential lesson at an early age: life is more than just making a living.

The McNeill family's gifts to the University of Alberta include the George and Margaret McNeill Engineering Co-op Scholarship, which supports students who excel in the engineering co-op program.

For more information, contact Nena Jocic-Andrejevic at 780-492-8969 or