Pining for the Past

Published: Aug 3, 2016
(Beller in front of Missing pine park sign)

When he was 30 years old, Neil Beller ’83, interdisciplinary studies, decided to make his mother a special gift for Mother’s Day: an aerial map of the Carney neighborhood where he had grown up, annotated with his favorite memories.  Over time, Beller fleshed out those annotations – and a map grew into a memory quest.

In 2015, Beller published Missing Pine Park – a book based on the project. The book is named after a small public space in Carney that lost its one remaining pine tree during Beller’s youth. Someone cut it down, decorations and all, on Christmas Eve.

These sorts of stories are at the heart of an unabashedly nostalgic memoir of a childhood in Baltimore County in the 1960s and 1970s – an era when, as Beller relates in the book, “you played with whomever was around… I used to get up at 7am on a Saturday and say, ‘See you at dinner,’ as I blew out the front door.”

One of Missing Pine Park’s most poignant themes in the book is another absence – Beller’s memories of a father who died of cancer in 1980, when the author was only 18 years old. Neil Beller, Sr., was a strict disciplinarian who’d stare down his children and breathe deep before meting out a punishment. But Beller also recalls a man who loved to watch thunderstorms on the front porch together with young Neil, and once even flew a kite with him at 7 a.m. on a weekday morning, dressed in his work clothes.

Sports are at the center of Beller’s freewheeling account of his childhood.  “We had softball games with twenty-six players on a side, and everybody batted.” he writes.  “We played in the woods, in backyards, in streets, in streams, and…. strangers’ basements were somewhat allowed.”

Beller carried that love of sports with him to UMBC, where he was the starting catcher and captain of the men’s baseball team in his senior year. He was also sports director for WUMD – the university’s campus radio station. UMBC’s interdisciplinary studies program allowed him to design a major – television production/audio media – that combined his twin passions.

“I thought I was going to be a professional baseball player since I was a kid,” says Beller, “and after you get out of professional sports, some people go into broadcasting – so that’s why I started taking TV and radio.”

Beller did play semi-professional baseball after graduation, but it was his TV and radio career that took off. After a stint editing television commercials and corporate videos for a Baltimore production company, he landed an editor job at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, where he won a local Emmy Award in 1990.

In 1991, Beller tried his luck in Hollywood. His first job was as an extra grip – building and maintaining the equipment that supports cameras – on the military justice thriller, A Few Good Men.  He also worked as an editor on Nickelodeon’s cult classic cartoon series Ren & Stimpy.

Beller returned to Baltimore in 1993, working as a senior editor and post production supervisor on a variety of projects. He was also a co-host on a radio show hosted by UMBC alumna Shari Elliker ’83, interdisciplinary studies on WBAL-AM for three years, winning two Associated Press awards along the way. (Elliker and Beller met when she was WUMD’s station manager, and they have been friends ever since.)

 Eventually Beller founded his own video production companies: Kit+Kaboodle Productions and The Beller Group. He says the preparation required for success in UMBC’s interdisciplinary studies degree – which requires careful advance planning of course requirements – helped him learn to lay firm foundations for his work.

“As someone in TV, that was the perfect training,” says Beller. “You have to be very prepared way ahead of time. If I had just stood in line and grabbed whatever was available, I don’t think I would have had that fortitude.”

Beller’s latest project? Since 1983, he has been answering letters that children write to Santa, and he is now compiling the letters into a book. Every December, he writes the letters from Santa with candles burning and cookies baking. “I got that from my father,” he says. “He loved Christmas… and I wanted to continue that.”

—Caitlin James ’01

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