When Highlands had a Poet Laureate

Ann McDonough McNeill was born in Highlands before there was a Highlands.

The ever smiling lady who lived more than one hundred years was born in 1896, four years before the borough separated from Middletown, and lived there her entire life, primarily in her snug little house on the corner of Valley Ave. and Route 36, the site where the first Catholic masses were said in the borough as well, before spending her final days at King James Care Center when it was under the administration of a dear old friend, Duke Black..

Ann was born a bit down the road in the house built in 1856 by her grandfather, James McGarry, Sr., and throughout her life she charmed oldsters and youngsters alike with stories about Highlands during the 20th century.

A teacher at our Lady of Perpetual Help School, she made it a point to ensure that every student knew enough about their hometown to be able to take extraordinary pride in it. She attended Atlantic Highlands High School, at the time the only one in the Bayshore, a couple of years before Leonardo High School was built, then went on to the Trenton Normal School for her collegiate education.

A voracious reader and writer, Ann can be remembered for so many poems she penned, many at the request of friends who wanted something special, many because it was her way of recalling some of the ‘good old days’ she loved to talk about.

At King James, she frequently wrote poetry to tell nurses and aides in a gentle way when she needed something, or wanted to criticize something, such as an aide becoming impatient with her walk, or bedtime rituals.

But Ann loved to write about her beloved Highlands more than anything else. In a letter she wrote to me when she was celebrating her 100th birthday, she said,

“I wish I were able to give you a feeling of the ‘old Highlands. Some of the sidewalks downtown were made of clam shells…hard on the feet. Or the nighttime card parties held over the old fire house at the corner of Bay and Valley Streets. Hearty refreshments afterwards. Mother used to take me to the ladies afternoon pink teas with tea served in small pink and white cups and saucers like the ones I had on my what not shelf. No streetlights so if you went walking at night you were apt to fall over a cow asleep on the sidewalk. Horse drawn wagons rattling all over the place and the trolley racing down the hill only to have the rod come off the wire and shower sparks all over. A favorite among kids was Jake Linzmayer’s fruit and vegetable cart from Atlantic Highlands, It had steps in the back where we could climb to select our favorite piece of fruit. Nothing since has tasted half as good….”

Local historian John King had compiled many of Ann’s poems in a book he wrote several years ago. Many are poems she had handwritten for John, or me, or any of her many friends who simply loved the poetry of the Highlands residents, teacher, and poet laureate of Monmouth County.

Ann was married to her beloved Bert for 30 years until his death, and the couple never had children. But every child in school was Ann’s own, in an incredibly unique way.

Here’s one of her poems she wrote in 1989 for Thanksgiving. She was 93 years old.

Dear God, thank you for:

My long, long life

I’ve seen and done so much

The love and care of friends and kin.

For any help I may have given as I passed

I thank you for my thirty years with Bert.

My years with children, fifty-five n all

I thank you for my hands

That still can form

Clothes for the needy

Toys for a children.

I thank you for my love of Nature

Birds and Beasts

It makes me joyful

Thank for my ‘Penthouse

In the sky

With view of Bay and town and clouds

And eyes to see it

So now I rest in my content,

And “wait my time.”


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