A special life: Archie McNealy, who went from public housing to school scholarships, dies at 32 from cancer

At age 32, Archie McNealy hadn’t lived long enough to be called a wise, experienced mentor. He never would.

But as he lay on a University of Miami Medical Center hospital bed, his life slowly ebbing, McNealy parceled out sage advice to his friends: Don’t be such a loner, he told one buddy. Stop looking for the perfect girl; you’ve already found her, he told another.

"He lived his own advice everyday," said a tearful Jessi Tamayo, a close friend, who called herself McNealy’s sister. “It was very important to him to have a heart-to-heart with each person. He wanted to leave an impression on everyone.”

McNealy, whose life was chronicled in the Miami Herald beginning in 1999, died of cancer on Dec. 10 – but not before he was able to share the lessons he learned from a joyful, though troubled, life. He was one day shy of his 33rd birthday.

“He had a spirit like no one I have ever met,” said McNealy’s longtime mentor, John Flickinger. “He showed resilience in the face of a lot of challenges.”

McNealy, who was born in Miami Dec. 11, 1980, was first introduced to readers in 1999 as a kid who grew up in public housing and got a scholarship to attend Ransom Everglades, an elite private school in Coconut Grove. His late mother abandoned him as a child and his father was in and out of his life.

Living with his paternal grandmother in a two-bedroom Overtown apartment, he would take two buses and a train to get to the school, but his determination to graduate never wavered, Flickinger said.

Flickinger, who at the time was the director of Summerbridge of Miami — now Breakthrough Miami — first met McNealy as a fifth-grader at Dunbar Elementary School in Overtown. The nonprofit program helps prepare at-risk youth for high school.

Flickinger passed out applications. McNealy completed one —even the part that was supposed to be filled out by his parents or guardian, Flickinger said.

“I knew right away he was different,” he said.

For three summers and ever Saturday, McNealy studied at Ransom Everglades. Then, right before McNealy started the eighth grade, his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. A year later his father died. When McNealy started ninth grade, he skipped class a lot and was arrested twice —once on his way to steal a car.

Flickinger kept telling him he could receive a scholarship to Ransom, which would help him find the right path. McNealy accepted.

In the 1999 Herald story, dubbed a modern-day Tale of Two Cities, McNealy said he often struggled between his two lives.

"Sometimes I feel bad because my friends at home think I'm trying to dog them when I tell them I can't chill with them in the park at night, " McNealy said at the time. "They tell me I'm afraid. I tell them that not a lot of good comes from hanging out and having nothing to do."

McNealy spent his high school career working hard to get into college. When he graduated in 1999, he was off to Florida A&M University. After the story ran, the president of the university offered McNealy a full scholarship.

When he first enrolled at FAMU in Tallahassee, everything was falling into place. But then McNealy hit a rough patch. After his sophomore year, McNealy lost his scholarship. Living on his own, McNealy said he was working too hard, spending too much time with his girlfriend. McNealy struggled to maintain passing grades, but he sometimes fell short.

"I got arrogant," he told a reporter later. "I thought I could miss class and make it up the next week. ... I was not ready to be on my own."

McNealy moved to Margate with his girlfriend in 2002 and got a job at a pawn shop. The low-end job appeared to be his only career path. But the news only got worse: In 2004 McNealy started to feel sick. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph node system.

He began chemotherapy treatments immediately and continued to work at the pawn shop until he lost that job when he inadvertently sold an item that had already been sold. Worse still, McNealy lost his health insurance. Though McNealy was rehired later —and his insurance restored —his time out of treatment wrought monstrous consequences. McNealy’s cancer had spread.

McNealy turned to the family he’d found so many years ago in his adolescence: his teachers and friends from Ransom Everglades.

Fernando Tamayo, Sr., whose son was friends with McNealy in high school, said he received the terrible news in an email from Flickinger. Tamayo offered the young man a deal: Tamayo would help McNealy all he could —so long as McNealy went back to school, quit the pawn shop and got rid of the gun he carried to work each day.

“Within a month he met every one of my demands,” Fernando Tamayo said, fighting tears.

Tamayo and Flickinger took turns taking McNealy to appointments and making sure he got the right treatments. The Ransom community raised money to help him later afford an apartment, a car and medical expenses.

The Miami Herald wrote one last story about McNealy at the end of December 2006. McNealy had begun intensive treatment to stanch the cancer. He had moved back in with his grandmother, sister and her two children. He treated the youngsters like they were his own.

“He wanted nothing but the best for those kids,” said Jessi Tamayo. “He wanted them to get an education and make something out of their lives.”

In the ensuing years, McNealy went through several rounds of treatment —with his extended Ransom family by his side.

He managed to take several business classes at Miami Dade College and was about a semester shy of graduation, Flickinger said.

Still fighting Lymphoma, doctors also diagnosed leukemia in 2012. McNealy and his medical team fought the illness vigorously.

Betty Lou Sanders, McNealy’s great aunt said, having his Ransom family by his side was a “blessing.”

“Each and everyone of them loved him,” she said.

In November, McNealy —who had been in the hospital since October —was determined to have his own Miami Heat-inspired version of the Harlem Shake. So from his hospital bed he organized all his friends to come to his room and have it taped. Everyone wore hospital gowns and masks. McNealy lay in bed attached to tubes nodding his head to the sound.

“Even if this doesn’t work out best, which I know it will, but always the worst case scenario considering the situation that I’ve been in, it’s just a blessing to see so many different parts of my life in the room at one time’s wonderful,” he said in the beginning of the video. “I love you all and I appreciate you all.”

He is survived by his sisters Michelle and Maria McNealy, his grandmother Emma Harris and his niece Janelle Burks and nephew Jarell Burks.

A funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at The Church of the Open Door, 6001 NW Eighth Ave. Range Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

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