For nine months out of the year, Lisa McNeal gets up and goes to work at the place where her mother’s life came to a violent and premature end 20 years ago this coming Friday.
McNeal, 43, of Grayson, teaches science in a newly remodeled, state-of-the-art classroom at East Carter High School. She’s taught there for the past six years.
Her mother, Deanna McDavid, taught English at the same school.
On Jan. 18, 1993, a student, Scott Pennington, walked into McDavid’s classroom with his father’s .38-caliber revolver and used the weapon to kill McDavid and a custodian, Marvin Hicks, who heard the commotion in McDavid’s classroom, tried to intervene and was gunned down himself. Pennington then briefly held the other students in the classroom hostage before allowing them to leave and surrendering to police officers in the school hallway.
Pennington was convicted in 1995 of two counts of murder and 22 counts kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
At the time of her mother’s slaying, McNeal was 23 and enrolled in the nuclear medicine program at the University of Kentucky. She said she was dropped from the program because of doubts over her fitness to continue in it because of the mental trauma she had experienced. She went on to obtain her master’s degree in business and worked for 14 years in the business field.
All the while, though, she said, her mother’s legacy was calling her.
McDavid, who was killed the day before her 49th birthday, taught high school in Akron, Ohio, for 14 years before returning to Carter County in 1981. In addition to teaching English at ECHS, she was director of the school’s drama club.
Her reputation was that of a tough, but fair educator who was completely devoted to her students and would go to any lengths to help them. In the weeks prior to her to death, she attempted to reach out to the obviously troubled Pennington because she was concerned about the recurring themes of death and violence in his class writings.
“She loved those kids so much,” McNeal said.
McNeal said her decision to teach at ECHS was motivated by a couple of factors. One was the desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Another, she said, was a desire to not let her mother be defined by what happened to her there because she was so much more than that.
“She was just an amazing person,” she said.
McNeal said teaching in the same school where her mother was murdered was a struggle the first year she was there. Once she got past the initial difficulty, though, it wasn’t a problem for her, and these days, “I don’t really think about it.”
She acknowledged, though, that the anniversary of her mother’s death is an emotional time for her, and she said she expected this year’s to be even more so, given that it’s the 20th. She said she finds it hard to fathom that two decades have elapsed since that awful day.
Other episodes of school violence, like last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., also awaken unpleasant memories, McNeal said.
McNeal said she frequently hears from McDavid’s former students, including some of those who were in her classroom when she was killed. They share with her how her mother impacted their lives, from inspiring their love of reading to influencing their career choices. Those stories, she said, help get her through the tough times.
While he said he never had the pleasure of knowing McDavid, ECHS Principal Larry Kiser’s comments regarding McNeal sound quite similar to the things people still say to this day about her mother.
“Lisa is very dependable, very knowledgeable in her subject area and very devoted to her students,” he said.
Prior to last month’s opening of ECHS’ new studio science classroom, which encourages students to think critically and work in teams, Kiser said he met with the school’s science faculty to determine who was going to take the room. He said let it be known there were some fairly high expectations that came with it, which caused some to be hesitant about claiming it. Finally, McNeal stepped forward and said, “I’ll take it if no one else wants it,” he said.
“That’s how Lisa is,” he said. “She’s always there when you need her, but she won’t step on anyone else’s toes.”
McNeal — who’s been married for the past four years to well-known local musician Louie McNeal, one-half of the acoustic duo Corbin & Louie — said her mother’s slaying brought her, her siblings and their father closer together as a family as they drew on each other for support. She said there was no particular method for how they coped with the tragedy, “we just got through it.”
She said her sister, Angela McDavid Sparks, and brother, Brent, are also leading happy, productive lives. The former is a deputy Carter County clerk and the latter works at Marathon’s Catlettsburg refinery, she said.
Her father, Danny, is retired from his career as a boilermaker and devotes most of his time these days to his grandchildren, she said.
KENNETH HART can be reached at email@example.com or