Thomas Neal has been chosen as the 2012 Beach Citizen of the Year. The decision was made by a committee of past Citizens and representatives of Community Centre 55, the Toronto Beaches Lions Club and Beach Metro News.
Neal came to the Beach 26 years ago, and has been a realtor for much of that time. Although his trade is real estate, Neal said his real passion is for the people in the Beach.
“The Beach has been good to me, both personally and professionally,” he said, “but the Beach is so much more than just houses. It’s about the people.”
Aside from becoming a local real estate expert (he writes the real estate column for this newspaper), Neal has also applied his lifelong love of hockey and sports to local youth sports leagues. He is a sponsor of the Beaches Community Soccer League as well as sitting on its board. He sponsors and coaches teams at the Victoria Village Hockey League, and in the past sponsored and coached with the Beaches Lacrosse League.
Neal may be best known to some as the driving force behind the natural ice rink that has been a prominent winter attraction in the Glen Stewart ravine for the last 10 years. Neal started the rink along with Reet and Jaanus Marley, and now maintains it every winter, along with “my go-to man Brock Grant, and young Mike.” The rink, which is split between two sections for pleasure skating and shinny hockey, is like a postcard of traditional winter fun, so much so that a Canadian Tire commercial featuring Guy Lafleur was filmed on the ice several years ago. Neal said the rink was born of a desire to provide a traditional Canadian experience to local children, including his own.
“Kids need a place to skate that’s not as structured as other places,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place to be flooding at two in the morning on a cold winter’s night. It’s a real slice of Canadiana.”
Neal said both his inspiration and support for all the activities he’s been involved in have come from his family – sons Braden, 15, and Ryan, 9, daughter Carly, 12, and partner Sheila Ream, who is “the love of my life.”
Neal has also spent time on a number of local boards. He served four years at Community Centre 55, as well a stint with the Friends of Maple Cottage, and was a founding member of the Balmy Beach Residents’ Association. And not that we would want to ask any deeply probing questions of him, but Neal has never been spotted in the same room as Santa Claus at quite a few events throughout the Beach and at Variety Village.
Neal’s motives are relatively simple – he sees giving of his time and money as a way to give back to a community that’s given him so much.
“You can’t live here and just take, take, take,” he said.
His inspiration also comes from other legendary Beach volunteers (and past Citizens of the Year), including Gene Domagala, Joan Brent and Glenn and Jean Cochrane, as well as the countless other volunteers who work behind the scenes for the benefit of the Beach.
“I hope to be able to live up to such an honour in coming years. There’s a lot of unsung people in the Beach. They work hard to make this neighbourhood an amazing place,” he said.
The official ceremony for the 2012 Beach Citizen of the Year will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Millennium Garden at the southeast corner of Coxwell and Eastern.