Sisters Forever

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Claudia Lacey McNeil (second from right) and Gretchen Anderson Pilip (second from left) with Alpha Phi sisters.

Claudia Lacey McNeil, BA ’72, and Gretchen Anderson Pilip, BS ’73, met on pledge day in the fall of 1968. Both young women were away from home for the first time, excited to start classes at the University of Oregon. The world was wide open—full of opportunity, adventure, and new people.

Little did they know that day marked the start of a friendship that has lasted nearly 50 years. Through births of children, deaths of parents, career changes, and the normal ebb and flow of life, the two have stayed connected with each other and a tight-knit group of Alpha Phi sorority sisters.

When together, McNeil and Pilip have an ease that comes with knowing someone most of your life. They reminisce about how the sisters danced to Mama Cass Elliot’s “It’s Getting Better” in the sleeping porch of the sorority, having so much fun they expected the floor to bust through to the dining room below. They talk about grandkids and finish each other’s thoughts.

There is also a hint of sadness. McNeil was diagnosed five years ago with ALS. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

It has no cure.

So often it is after death that people talk about the impact and character of the departed. Pilip didn’t want to wait. She wanted McNeil to see that her life has made a difference and feel the love of those around her. In a tribute to her friend, Pilip has endowed the Claudia Lacey McNeil Scholarship Fund at the UO.

“My time at the UO was magical,” said McNeil, who graduated with a degree in Romance languages. “It shaped my future way better than I anticipated.”

McNeil grew up in Portland and fell in love with the UO during a campus tour. Besides joining Alpha Phi, she worked at the campus bookstore.

“It was the best job for me,” she said. “I got to see everyone as they came back to school. The UO always brings a smile to my face.”

Pilip was an only child who surprised her parents when she selected the UO. Her dad, H. E. “Bud” Anderson, had been a longtime supporter of Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington.

“The UO was a really good fit for me. I liked the size of the school and campus,” said Pilip, who graduated with a degree in recreation and park management.

Through the sorority, the two met a bonded group of lifelong friends—a group of women who have stayed connected since college. Even though the women came from a variety of backgrounds, they treated each other as equals.

“After college, we stayed together and supported each other through many different things,” Pilip said.

McNeil built a real estate business in Portland that is now run by her two daughters, Christy MacColl and Carrie Gross. She has five grandchildren between the ages of one and seven. Pilip worked as community organizer for Clackamas Community College. She and her husband, Brent, have a son, Patrick; a daughter, Amy Brooke; and three grandchildren.

But through the hectic child-rearing years and moves to and from the state, the women continued their friendship.

“We were connected, if not always physically. We knew it took work. Everyone had to work to keep it going,” McNeil said. “We were able to talk about pretty deep topics. We lived through trying and traumatic periods. But we also celebrated weddings, births, and careers. And we always had fun.”

Pilip, through the H. E. Anderson Family Foundation, came up with the idea to fund an endowment in her friend’s name. She asked McNeil to help define its use.

“I was in a state of shock. Good shock. It came so out of the blue,” said McNeil. “I went to bed and couldn’t really sleep. I decided I wanted it to be a focused scholarship that would support minority communities.”

The undergraduate scholarship will provide tuition support to graduates of Portland’s De La Salle High School or residents of Portland’s north or eastside neighborhoods.

“Scholarships are the only way many people are able to go to college,” Pilip said. “I want students in the future to say, ‘I am at the UO and college is possible because of Claudia Lacey McNeil.’”

But at its core the scholarship fund is a tribute to friendship.

“I’ve been able to experience lifelong friendships firsthand. I feel that is a gift. Not everyone gets that gift,” McNeil said. “I’ve shed a tear over it. It’s a beautiful thing. It is through adversity that you become especially close. But sometimes we will just get laughing so hard our sides split.”

“This is to honor Claudia . . . her life and her commitment and connection to the University of Oregon,” Pilip said.

—Heidi Hiaasen

To contribute to the Claudia Lacey McNeil Scholarship, contact Candace Horter at 503-412-0470 or chorter@uoregon.edu.