Burnham Neal, 89, owner of Ben Tire Distributors in Toledo, Ill., and the 2008 recipient of the Tire Business Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award, died April 12 in an early morning fire at his home in Mattoon.
According to a report in the Decatur, Ill., Herald & Review, firefighters and other emergency responders were dispatched at about 7 a.m. to Mr. Neal's residence in a cul-de-sac on the south side of Mattoon. Assistant Chief Pat Goodwin of the Lincoln Fire Protection District told the newspaper that emergency personnel received a report en route that an occupant was trapped inside the home. Arriving at the scene, they found flames had fully engulfed the home. He said firefighters subsequently found Mr. Neal inside on the main floor.
Coles County Coroner Ed Schniers and the Coles County Sheriff's Office reported that Mr. Neal died at the scene as a result of the fire. Firefighters blamed a dryer for the fire.
The sheriff's office reported that Mr. Neal's at-home caregiver—as well as a firefighter injured when he fell through a hole on the house's first floor—were taken to a hospital for treatment and later released.
Funeral services celebrating Mr. Neal's life were held April 21 at Mitchell-Jerdan Funeral Home in Mattoon.
Mr. Neal was born May 15, 1922, the son of Edgar Allen and Lora Ann (Burnham) Neal, in Toledo. He married Nancy J. Lunsford on June 20, 1966, in Las Vegas. She preceded him in death on Dec. 10, 2006.
As the co-founder of Ben (Burnham E. Neal) Tire Distributors, Mr. Neal was not only a gentle hands-on owner of the dealership—which operates some 27 outlets as Neal Tire & Auto Service and seven distribution centers—but a well-known and respected benefactor of numerous local charities, schools, hospitals, events and causes.
In a 2008 Tire Business story on Mr. Neal receiving the Humanitarian award, a longtime warehouseman in the Ben Tire operation remarked about his boss: “He knows how to handle people. He'll tell you whether it's right or wrong, but not demoralize you. The way he handles me is the way I handle my people, and that makes the whole organization stronger, sets a very good example.”
“Burnham is one of those people who, when he walks in a room, can command attention and not even ask for it. Just by his presence. I've seen that happen and it's awe-striking. He makes you step up and make decisions and judgments for the betterment of other people.”
Mr. Neal was respected by many within the dealership organization for his efforts to support his employees—and their family members—especially those who were going through personal difficulties, medical problems or struggling with finances.
Entering the tire business was probably the furthest thing from his mind when World War II came along and young Burnham Neal joined the Army Air Corps. He had his sights set on being a “flyboy.” But a scar on his lung led to his discharge because of health problems.
He set out for California and took on work building bombers for a company. Meanwhile back home in Toledo, his dad was running the bulk oil, gas and diesel fuel distributorship he had started in 1925. The elder Mr. Neal went to the West Coast to try to convince his son to move back to Illinois and help out. He'd sell Burnham a stake in his gas station business and, he told him, after several years, promised to increase that share until his son eventually would buy him out.
Loyalty to family and hometown drew Burnham back home.
“We started up in a little town back when it had 700 people,” Burnham Neal recalled. “I went all over Illinois, Indiana, and began selling tires clear up into Wisconsin for dad and spreading things out.”
The company expanded into selling tires to local businesses through service stations, in addition to the seven stations the Neals owned. Eventually the oil segment was sold off and Ben Tire capitalized on servicing the agricultural tire needs of local farms through its commercial/retail locations, since many retail stores were in rural areas.
Mr. Neal had a Texaco distributorship in town, a tire business and the service stations, then started branching out, eventually turning over store operations to his hires. As the tire business expanded and the oil business was sold, Mr. Neal eventually bought out his father, who retired. Mr. Neal latched his wholesale business supply with TBC Corp., beginning a long relationship with that distributor.
Always with an eye toward taking care of his employees, in 1991 Mr. Neal sold his company to them through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), though he still held an interest in it.
“Through the years, we had a pretty good organization, good people,'' Mr. Neal told Tire Business during an interview at the company's Toledo headquarters. “They always seem to want to do the best for the company….”
“All of them have taken care of me pretty well,” he said of the communities in which the dealership operates, “so I want to do the best for each of them.”
Mr. Neal's reputation for generosity was well known in central Illinois. Among his accomplishments, he played a major role in building a new YMCA in Mattoon and establishing the Neal Nursing Institute at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center. He received the 2008 East Central Illinois Association for Fundraising Professionals' Philanthropist of the Year Award and also was active in numerous local business endeavors. An avid sports fan and golfer, he was a longtime member of the Mattoon Golf and Country Club, where he served a term as its president.
Pam Crisman, vice president for development at Lake Land College in Mattoon, called Mr. Neal “a true philanthropist and friend” of the college and its foundation.
She recalled in the late 1980s and early 1990s how he opened his company's facilities after business hours to allow the college's automotive technology students to use dealership equipment, such as four-wheel alignment machinery, which the college couldn't afford at the time. Ben Tire also offered Lake Land students employment opportunities over the years.
Mr. Neal's first recorded financial gift to the college's foundation was in 1998 when the Steve Smith Memorial Scholarship was established in memory of an employee. In 2005, Burnham and Nancy Neal presented the college with a $1.2 million gift which included real estate along with a 10-year leaseback agreement with the foundation that provided it with additional annual income.
“Burnham's unselfish contributions to the college have made it possible for hundreds of students to obtain a college education,” Ms. Crisman added.
Cynthia L. Neal, a family member and corporate director of marketing for Ben Tire Distributors, described Mr. Neal as “a great man who will be missed by not just his family but by his community. Anyone who wants to pay tribute to Burnham should not worry about sending cards or sending flowers,” she told Tire Business.
“They should look around their own community and see where they can be of service. If they have time, volunteer, if they have money, donate. Do what they can to make a difference in their community. That is all Burnham ever did. He always tried to be of service to his fellow man.”
Mr. Neal is survived by his daughter, Melissa Hope Neal-Lunsford of Charleston, Ill., and grandsons Sean Burnham Neal-Lunsford and David Reaves Neal-Lunsford.