Written in the Stars

Former National Goodwill Ambassador receives MDA's top award

Mike Neufeldt on the job at Harley-Davidson company headquarters in Milwaukee.
by Amy Madsen on November 1, 2007 - 4:16pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 6

As a 6-year-old in the first grade, Mike Neufeldt used an orange Pony scooter to keep up with classmates on the playground and in gym class. After attending an MDA Harley-Davidson event, where one of the drivers gave him some decals, Neufeldt proudly plastered the company’s bar and shield on the back of his ride, and when kids inevitably asked if Harley-Davidson had made his scooter, Neufeldt told them “yes.”

Some might say it was prophetic, or perhaps written in the stars, but more than 20 years later, the New Berlin, Wis., resident works for the famed motorcycle manufacturer as a communications specialist at company headquarters in Milwaukee; there he assists in the setup and training for various dealer Web sites.

There’s another event in Neufeldt’s life, though, that also seems as if it always was meant to be. This year, Neufeldt, who has Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy, was selected as MDA’s 2008 Robert Ross National Personal Achievement Award recipient.

The award, announced during the national broadcast of the 2007 Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon recognizing the accomplishments and community service of people with any of the neuromuscular diseases MDA covers.

This year the award was renamed in honor of Robert Ross, MDA’s longtime chief executive, who died in June 2006.

Neufeldt, who turns 30 Dec. 17, is the first PAA recipient who also was an MDA National Goodwill Ambassador as a child and, as it happens, his selection coincides with the 20th anniversary of his first term in the national ambassador role.

In the beginning

Neufeldt Family
Mike, with his parents, Ray and Carol Neufeldt

As Southeast Wisconsin Goodwill Ambassador in 1985 at age 7, and again in 1986, Neufeldt enjoyed making appearances on his local Telethon broadcast with co-hosts WITI-TV news director Jill Geisler and consumer affairs reporter Tom Hooper. He remembers telling Geisler on his first appearance how much he liked her dress, and explaining in great detail about his treatments.

At age 8, Neufeldt was named MDA National Goodwill Ambassador, serving in 1987 and again in 1988, a time he describes as “the best two years of my life.”

“It was such an honor to represent MDA at events all over the USA,” he explains. “I did look at it as an important job — one I had fun doing, but also one that had great responsibility. I wanted to teach people about abilities, not disabilities.”

In addition to speaking at various events and fund-raisers, Neufeldt filmed several public service announcements for MDA, including one for McDonald’s called “Large Fries for Small Fries,” with basketball great Michael Jordan, and another for Aisles of Smiles with MDA National Chairman Jerry Lewis.

“I always knew Jerry would take good care of me,” Neufeldt says. “He always made me look good on camera and at events.”

Neufeldt accompanied Lewis to the White House to visit then President Ronald Reagan.

“Jerry was goofing around with me and trying to keep me loose,” Neufeldt says of the time they spent waiting to see the president. “The next minute Jerry would be telling a story of all the former presidents he had entertained. I remember thinking that Jerry Lewis is part of our country’s history also.”

Part of the team

In addition to cheering on Team MDA, Neufeldt always has been a sports fan, following professional baseball, football, basketball and college basketball. He roots for all the home teams, including the Brewers, Packers, Bucks and Marquette University (his alma mater) basketball. Although he never played sports, in high school Neufeldt was scorekeeper and statistician for his high school’s varsity basketball and baseball teams.

“Scorekeeping gave me the opportunity to be part of the team,” he says. “I got to experience the highs and lows, wins and losses.”

In 1997, Eisenhower High School honored Neufeldt by naming its new baseball field Mike Neufeldt Field. He was honored again this May after new dugouts and a press box were added, and the field was rededicated with a ceremony, followed by an alumni game.

In 2005, Neufeldt seized the opportunity to combine his love of sports with his talent as a communicator and writer, co-authoring a book with friend and Milwaukee TV sports reporter Tom Pipines. Tales from the Marquette Hardwood (Sports Publishing) traces the memorable moments, on and off the court, in the long and storied tradition of Marquette University men’s basketball, including the team’s fight to the 1977 NCAA championship.

Neufeldt says although it was a “tremendous undertaking,” he’s happy to have had the experience.

“We were a good team,” Neufeldt says, noting he was honored to work with Pipines. “Tom had the experience and contacts, and I had the computer and writing skills.”

The importance of volunteering

In 1996, Neufeldt attended Marquette University in Milwaukee as a Burke Scholar; the award provided full tuition and board, and was based on scholarship, leadership and community service. To maintain the scholarship, Neufeldt says, he had to keep a 3.5 cumulative grade point average and perform 450 hours of community service each year.

Neufeldt tutored elementary school students during the school year and in summer school. He also volunteered at the University’s Community Action Program, finding volunteer opportunities for sororities, fraternities or other large groups of students.

“Volunteering is a great way to give back to the community,” Neufeldt says. “We all have talents and other skills that we can share with others. I feel that I am helping others and doing my part to educate and teach people about living with a disability.”

Volunteering, take 2

Since graduating from Marquette in May 2000, Neufeldt has worked with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin on an advisory committee giving input on the construction of a new hospital. He’s also been a speaker for Children’s Hospital about transition from high school to college, and in 2005 worked with Young Professional Milwaukee on Disability Awareness Day, during which numerous high-profile individuals spent the day in wheelchairs experiencing the day-to-day obstacles wheelchair users face.

Neufeldt continues giving in other areas as well.

“Volunteering for MDA did not end with my goodwill ambassador days,” he says.

He and his family volunteer at local MDA events and the local Telethon broadcast. Since 1998 he’s served as co-host on the Southeastern Wisconsin MDA Telethon broadcast on WDJT CBS-58 in Milwaukee. He’s also been a member of the MDA National Task Force on Public Awareness since 1997.

In 2006, Marquette University named Neufeldt recipient of the prestigious James T. Tiedge Memorial Award, given to former students of broadcast and electronic communication for professional excellence consistent with the values of ethical behavior and social responsibility.

Reflections on Robert Ross

Mike Neufeldt Now
Mike Neufeldt Then
Mike - then known as Mikey - back in 1987 as MDA's National Goodwill Ambassador and, 20 years later, as the latest recipient of MDA's National Personal Achievement Award.

An important influence in Neufeldt’s life was his friend Robert Ross, to whom he became close while serving as National Goodwill Ambassador. This connection makes Neufeldt’s selection as the first recipient of the newly renamed Robert Ross National Personal Achievement Award even more special to him.

“Bob Ross was one of the kindest men I have ever met,” Neufeldt says, explaining that one of the things he remembers most was the phone calls Ross made to him and his family.

“He would always call just to say ‘hi’ and see how we were doing,” Neufeldt says, adding that the calls didn’t stop after his two terms as national ambassador concluded. “The phone calls continued and always told me that Bob, my friend, cared about how I was doing. I miss Bob’s phone calls.”

Neufeldt remembers making many trips with his family to visit Ross in Tucson, Ariz., where he enjoyed watching Ross play with his dog, Tallulah, and testing his vocabulary in endless rounds of a word game Ross loved called GHOST.

“I miss Bob very much,” Neufeldt says, adding, “I think about the great legacy he left MDA.

“It’s a great honor to receive the Robert Ross MDA Personal Achievement Award. When I think about personal achievement and lifetime achievement, it’s Bob who I think about.”

Looking ahead

As recipient of the national achievement award, Neufeldt looks forward to continuing his enduring friendship with MDA, serving as leader, role model and teacher to those with disabilities and without.

“I never wanted to be a teacher, but in many ways I have been teaching people about disabilities my whole life,” Neufeldt says. “MDA has given me the exposure and platform to speak and be someone who is recognized as a leader.

“I feel honored and humbled that people think of me as an inspiration. I just try to live my life the best way I know how.”

To catch up with former PAA winners, see Six Familiar Faces.
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