BRATTLEBORO — Eve Nyrhinen describes her complicated father, Ray McNeill, as “warm-hearted, deeply loving, and fun,” but also “an exacting perfectionist and perhaps the most stubborn person I've ever known.”
“This fueled his relentless drive toward his dream: to brew the world's best beers,” Nyrhinen said of McNeill, who died Dec. 2 in a fire that consumed his namesake brewery and pub on Elliot Street.
“He was a generous employer and a loyal friend,” she said. “I've been contacted by so many people over the last few days who said they met him when they were homeless, or as a single parent struggling to keep the heat on, or an immigrant who spoke little English, and he got them a job and a place to stay and made them feel like family.”
“I literally can't count how many people I've never known who have texted or called to tell me, 'He was like a dad to me,'” Nyrhinen added. “He tried to make his pub a place where every singe person felt welcome, felt like family.”
A lifelong musician and avid cyclist, McNeill, says his daughter, “put his boots on and went down to the brewery every single day for more than a decade. Even when he was sick. Even on Christmas. He never took a day off. He was often in the brewery before the sun rose, and didn't leave until after the sun had set.
“He told me those were some of the happiest years of his life, building that brewery, watching it go from a few pickle buckets and hoses to an internationally-acclaimed microbrew epicenter.”
One of her favorite stories about her being in the bar was when she was 3 years old and someone asked her dad if she was his daughter.
When McNeill confirmed, the man said, “I want to shake your hand.”
McNeill asked why.
“The man said he'd been losing at darts and I'd gone up to him and told him, 'Look, if you keep trying and you don't give up, and you don't cheat, one day you will win,'” Nyrhinen said. “My father was so proud. That's what he taught me: keep trying, don't give up, don't cheat, and one day you will win.”
And there's a lot to be proud of. Nyrhinen attended Harvard University, Dartmouth College, the University of California San Francisco, and Stanford University, and is a multi-time regional champion cyclist who won five medals at nationals. Her sibling, Taylor McNeill, is finishing their second Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University.
“I attribute these successes to the work ethic our father modeled, the values he instilled in us, and the goals he taught us to set for ourselves,” Nyrhinen said. “I'm grateful I had the chance to tell him that before he died.”
Taylor McNeill said it has been “really comforting, in some way, to see how many people cared about him.”
They recall that during times when the business was thriving and he had fewer responsibilities, their Dad “would spend all day every day playing the cello, often eight or more hours a day, and so much so that he developed arthritis in his hands.”
“Some of my earliest memories are of him setting me on his lap and holding my hand under his, over the bow, while he played the Winnie the Pooh song,” they said. “My dad was an incredibly gregarious man. It seemed he knew everyone in town, and I could never keep track of all of the friends he talked about.”
“He was confident -sometimes overconfident - and shameless, for better or worse,” McNeill recalled. “He was brutally honest and direct, he had little patience for pretense, and he was stubborn.”
“In short, Ray was 110 percent Ray, 24/7, regardless of where he was or who he was with,” McNeill said, adding that their father was also “incredibly invested in the local community.”
“He was incredibly intentional about spending money in places that supported local businesses and was constantly building reciprocal relationships of support with local business owners,” they said.
“I know not all of his relationships with employees of the bar were easy, but many of them he treated like family,” McNeill said. “For many years when I was young, we would have anyone who worked at the bar that could make it over for Thanksgiving dinner. There would often be 15 people and my mom would make homemade espresso ice cream for dessert, a tradition that fueled these parties late into the night.”
Early in their childhood, McNeill said their parents worked “tirelessly” to build the business.
“The bar felt like home to me,” they said. “Probably more so than our actual living space.”
“I think my parents sometimes got some flack for raising us in that environment, but I genuinely felt held by that community,” McNeill said. “I don't think many children are fortunate enough to have such a wide network of safety and belonging.”
“A lot of my early learning took place with bartenders and regulars that I probably couldn't name now but were extended family at the time,” said McNeill, who remembers sitting at the bar while someone taught them to draw a three-dimensional box on a napkin.
“I remember trying to guess the answer to multiplication questions way before I had learned to multiply in school with an employee who was cleaning the bar before opening,” they said.
They also remember “when it got really cold, water would condense, or sometimes frost, on the big window in the front of the bar, and we would write messages with our fingers on the inside, probably some of my first experiences with writing.”
“I met one of my best childhood friends, Elizabeth Keefe, at the bar, and we used to play, climbing on bags of malt in the back,” McNeill said. “Of course, I did 'help' my Dad some in the brewery, although I'm sure I was more in the way than anything.”
“My Dad was fairly single-minded about the bar,” they continued. “In the mid '90s, when the brewery was in its golden era, he would often remind us, 'Your mother and I worked like dogs' to build the business. I know in middle childhood sometimes I would just beg for us to talk about something else at the dinner table.”
“It was all he talked about up until the end,” McNeill said.
'Complex and sometimes challenging relationships'
Taylor McNeill also posted in the Friends of McNeill's public Facebook group on Dec. 6, expressing their gratitude and also noting the complexity of having a dad who often deferred to the bar community, leaving his child to wait.
As they ponder the upcoming memorial (see main story), Taylor wrote of “finding myself wondering how much I will feel I belong there.”
“Will anyone even know who I am from the convoluted and fragmented details my Dad may have shared about me? Will this be yet another time when my feelings and experiences are backgrounded in deference to the bar community?” they asked. “How much will it feel like a celebration of all the moments when my Dad turned his attention away from me when I wanted it so desperately?”
“It feels so important for the community to gather, to enjoy beer together, and to recognize the incredible work my Dad did to bring people together,” they said.
But, they added, “it is also an irreplaceable opportunity for me and others that were family to him to mourn, to wrestle with the complex and sometimes challenging relationships we had with him in his wholeness, and to find a sense of closure that allows us to carry on with our lives fundamentally changed.”
“I think it is possible to do both,” McNeill said.
“I ask for your support in holding space for me and my relationship with Ray, not as the brewer but as a father - an imperfect and often emotionally inaccessible father who loved me immensely even though he did not know me,” they wrote.
“I have no idea where to begin unpacking all of that, and raising a glass is simply not enough,” Taylor McNeill concluded.