Her Brother’s Keeper

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy Lisa Neumeier Bobel Hearn

Feb 1, 2023 | Featured, People


“I thought, what would Billy do? It would be something somehow to help someone else,” she says. “That’s the avenue I’ve got to take to deal with it. I want someone else to get help, so they don’t have a sister who’s broken, or a family who’s broken.”
~ Lisa Neumeier Bobel Hearn

Everywhere Lisa (Neumeier) Bobel Hearn goes, she hears about her big brother Bill.

“People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, you wouldn’t believe what your brother did for me,’ or ‘One time I needed this, and do you know what your brother did?’ It is nonstop; it is constant,” Lisa says. “I am so proud when I run into people, and they all talk about him.”

Bill Neumeier spent the entirety of his life in Fort Smith, first as a member of the well-known Neumeier clan who spent decades in the nursery business and then as proprietor of Neumeier’s Rib Room and Papa’s Pub and Pizzeria. He was also a passionate supporter and organizer of the Riverfront Blue’s Festival and Peacemaker Festival. Whether you came for the food or for the excellent lineup of musical acts he booked over the years, you knew Bill.

“Everyone in Fort Smith knew him,” Lisa says. “He had a passion for Fort Smith, and he was a big promoter of downtown. He’s been passionate about that since we were teenagers.”

Lisa lets out a soft laugh here and there talking about her brother, fits them in wherever she can. For the past two years, laughter has tucked itself into corners and under beds and between the pages of books, usually followed by the familiar pangs of grief and the maddening refrain of the same solitary question, “Why?”

Why did a man with so much love and support end up feeling so alone? Why had one of the best-known people in Fort Smith kept such a secret? And why couldn’t he, with multiple options to meet any situation, not see more than one way out?

“We have a gazillion questions,” Lisa says, her voice cracking delicately. “It’s like you become a forensic. You just have to figure it out.”

William “Bill” August Neumeier, Jr. entered the world Dec. 7, 1963, the eldest of the Neumeier kids. From the very start, he and his two younger siblings knew family, faith and hard work as the devout Catholic clan’s life revolved around the family nursery and St. Boniface Church in Fort Smith.

“He was wild and crazy growing up,” Lisa says. “Every family has a wild child and Billy was ours. We all grew up working; you walked out the door and you worked. But if there was a way he could get out of work in some ornery little way, he would. Nevertheless, we all learned to work hard!”

Bill was a natural intellect, graduating from Subiaco Academy in 1982 and later attending College of the Ozarks. He also fell in love with music early, thanks to his mother’s record collection, just one of the things the two held closely in common.

“When we were younger and the nursery was smaller, I mean we were really little, there was a little office and our house was in the back part of it,” Lisa says. “My mother always had records playing and it was always the best music. When Bill expanded the Rib Room, I remember him toasting Mom at the grand opening and saying how he grew up listening to great music that gave him a passion for listening to music.

“We all joke that he was the favorite child, but it is the honest-to-God truth. And we’re OK with it. My mom and he, personality wise and everything, are so alike. Mom would always say, ‘I know what you’re going to do before you do it.’ And she was so close to him.”

All of that makes the events of November 19, 2018, all the more enigmatic. Bill was a man of moods – ranging from the wild child of his youth to the guy who sat on the periphery even on nights his restaurants were full of music and people. Which one held sway depended on the circumstances of his personal life or the business or just because it was that day. The family didn’t always know the what or when of a bad day, even as they stood by to lend whatever help and support they could.

“Anytime that he was having a low, he always would contact a family member or friend,” Lisa says. “If it was certain good friends that knew us as well, they’d call us. I would just go stay with him, or my mother would. We’d stay close.”

But it would come to pass on this last occasion that no call would come, no hint given, and no explanation left behind. All the shell-shocked family would stumble across in the aftermath of Bill taking his own life three days before that Thanksgiving, were the words he left behind.

“There were just these little notes,” Lisa says. “They were literally in a row, ‘I love you, Mom and Dad,’ ‘I love you, Joseph,’ ‘I love you, Lisa.’”

The impact of Bill’s passing and the unanswered questions that came with it had a crushing effect on the close-knit Neumeier family as each member tried in their own way to cope with what had happened. Things that felt sure and unshakable one moment fractured under their feet the next. The passing of time helps only a little; in Lisa’s case, raw feelings still work their way to the surface.

And it was on a particularly tough day, one haunted by questions asked for the thousandth time about what they should have noticed, that Lisa finally turned Bill’s final acts back onto his memory.

“I thought, what would Billy do? It would be something somehow to help someone else,” she says. “That’s the avenue I’ve got to take to deal with it. I want someone else to get help, so they don’t have a sister who’s broken, or a family who’s broken.”

Nearly two years to the day of Bill’s death, Lisa founded the Bill Neumeier Foundation for Suicide Awareness, a nonprofit that hopes to raise funds and award grants to local organizations focusing on suicide awareness and prevention. Lisa hopes to grow the foundation into something that funds the kind of programs that promote knowledge and intervention skills to prevent other families from losing a loved one.

“When Billy hit that low, we didn’t know about it and that’s the one thing I hate,” she says. “I can tell you right now we would have been at his door. If he’d locked the door, we would’ve kicked that door down. I’m often like, ‘You should have called, Billy, you should have called, you should have called.’

“But the thing I keep reading about suicide awareness is, there are so many people who don’t have someone to talk to or don’t know what to do. There are people out there who are not going to call or they’re not going to get the help they need because they’re too embarrassed or they think this is just not me, I don’t really have that problem. I want to raise as much money as I can so that I can write a check to whoever has the ability to answer those phone calls or go knock on that door of someone needing help.”

At this, Lisa stops and takes a long breath. In the new year she’s got fundraisers to execute and donors to approach and money to raise. There are so many people to help and so much work to do and such need hangs in the air it can feel like too much sometimes. But come what may, she will see this monumental and unfamiliar undertaking through, as a testament to her brother’s life, a life she’s determined to help stand for more than how it ended.

“I need all the help I can get, but we’ve got to make this happen,” she says. “No matter what it takes, no matter what, it’s going to happen.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
For more information or to support the Bill Neumeier Foundation, visit billneumeierfoundation.com.

Do South Magazine

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