Meet Neil Erskine: Everyone’s neighbor (Opinion)
As you drive along the scenic streets of South Lake Tahoe, you might see a familiar face among the lush green pines that line the famous lake. A friendly man with tanned skin, well-earned wrinkles, and a smile you could recognize anywhere. When he says hello, you can tell he means it.
Neil Erskine is a 90-year-old Oakland native who officially became my grandfather in September 2012 when I married his grandson, Scott, at the top of Heavenly. But I knew from the first time I met him four years prior that he would become an important person in my life. He was kind and funny, and immediately welcomed this shy girl from the Midwest into his home and his life.
I know I’m not the only one who has had the pleasure of meeting Neil. He and his wife, Fern, moved to South Lake Tahoe in June 1964 and built one of the first houses on Patricia Lane. Today, they still sweep pine needles off the roof, plow snow from the driveway, and fill their home with friends and family all year long. Their plot of land has seen hundreds of horseshoe games and lucky dogs living their best lives, and it even played host to my wedding rehearsal. Every evening you can find Neil and Fern in their living room, facing the view they created that welcomes birds and small creatures to drink and graze from their land. Neil has continually cared for and appreciated the beauty of this nature — he always finds a way to enjoy the little things.
After serving in the United States Navy as a turret gunner on a Grumman TBM Avenger, Neil went on to wear many hats, including becoming a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. He eventually settled into a career as a truck driver making deliveries all around the Tahoe area for many years. He and Fern built a life for themselves at the lake, raising a son, Jim, and daughter, Kelly, who grew up here and attended South Tahoe High School.
Their family continued to grow and now their home is rarely empty; grandchildren and extended family visit often and neighbors stop by for a chat or to drop off a treat. Neil isn’t just a part of this close-knit community — he helped establish it and has nurtured it for nearly six decades. Whether at a local restaurant, bicycle shop, bar, or grocery store, Neil is bound to cross paths with someone he knows. Neil is everyone’s neighbor.
But it’s not just his human connections he’s known for, he earned the nickname the “cookie man” because that’s who he is to his four-legged companions. On any given day, after the snow has melted and the trails have cleared, he will take a ride on his sporty blue trike equipped with a bright orange flag, a bit conspicuous for this modest Navy man, but it’s always safety first. He never leaves home without filling his pockets with dog treats, knowing that he will come across one of his furry friends. They often spot him first, which could be attributed to the canine’s undoubtedly strong nose — or maybe it’s the fact that even animals can recognize Neil’s presence as he pedals along the bike paths surrounding Camp Richardson.
Neil’s compassion doesn’t end there. He has given back to his neighbors and local businesses through acts of kindness, referrals, collecting mail, dog sitting, and more. His good deeds throughout the South Lake Tahoe community do not go unnoticed; but he would probably tell you he doesn’t need the glory, he just likes to do the right thing.
Even now as a nonagenarian, his goals in life achieved, he pushes himself to stay active, be of service to others, and appreciate his life at the lake. As my mind travels back to the summer of 2008, when I was first introduced to this beautiful city and my future grandfather, I remember what he said as we watched the sun dip below the water while standing on Pope Beach:
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
I understand now, Grandpa. Happy 90th Birthday and enjoy the view.
Shannon Dewey is a writer currently working as the digital strategy and engagement editor for Toastmasters International’s magazine.
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