Christopher ‘Ooty’ Neely
Chris Ulrick Neely was born in Yosemite Valley where his father, Santa Barbara potter Bill Neely, was a ranger-naturalist. The first of five sons and one daughter, he was named after Bill’s friend Chief Leemee (Chris Brown) of the Miwok tribe, who performed a Fawn Dance, also known as a baby dance, in dedication to his namesake. Yosemite became Chris’s summer playground.
But Santa Barbara was home, in a community gathered together on Mountain Drive by Bobby Hyde, who sold the original families the land. And what a community it was! The children wove in and out of each other’s houses, as well as trails and forts scattered across the properties. Bill crafted cups with each neighbor’s name, so that everyone would be welcomed on impromptu visits. Chris’s mother, Barbara, filled the house with flute music and the aroma of freshly baked bread. Organic vegetables came straight from her garden. At dinnertime, a conch shell was blown to call their six children — Chris, Dana, Severin, Benji, Tessa, and Jeff — home.
Being the eldest child had its advantages. Maternal grandma Irma Cooke, who herself had three children, took her oldest three grandchildren to Europe on an elegant ocean liner. They traveled through the Panama Canal all the way to her family home in England. Meals aboard the ship were very formal affairs involving lots of silverware and etiquette.
Another summer, Chris attended a boys’ camp, Trail Finders, where they wore pith helmets and hiked down the Grand Canyon. They played with Hopi children in the old Oraibi village. Chris was selected to attend a solemn Kiva ceremony for two teen Hopi boys, and he saw traditional Kachina dances.
Chris’s life turned upside down at age 12, when his mother died of cancer. He was sent to live in the creek-side cottage of Grandma Cooke, leaving his siblings behind. Irma had started the children’s program at the Natural History Museum, and Chris spent many after-school hours there. He often napped in the planetarium, where the dimmed lights and the monotone voice of Captain Crutchfield Adair put him right to sleep. He was the only child included on bus trips with the elder birdwatching ladies, and he was often able to watch his mother’s friend, the painter Ray Strong, create his wonderful dioramas in the Bird Habitat Hall.
Chris was in charge of feeding the small menagerie of animals housed at the museum. Those clever raccoons could make real mischief! They unlocked doors to get into jars of peanut butter and knew how to let the other animals loose.
Numbering hundreds of shells for the museum’s collection turned into a summer job for Chris, and it led him to study archeology in college. While re-stringing beads on digs, he found his true career in jewelry making. Learning the properties of metal smithing and mastering the soldering of gold onto silver, he created his unique look. The colors of precious and semi-precious stones were the focal point of his designs. Chris Neely Jewelry Designs was a part of the Yes Store collaborative during Christmastime in Santa Barbara. He was also a vendor for many years at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire throughout California. His father helped start the Faire, gathering together artists and selling his wine-filled goblets.
Barrels of Pagan Brothers wine were made with grapes hand-picked and stomped by the Mountain Drive community. These festive affairs involved tributes to Bacchus and anointing a yearly wine queen to bless the vintage. At just such an affair, Chris met his true love and future bride — me! — Kathy.
We raised our two children, Rosie and Ryan, on the Neely property. After the Tea Fire destroyed our homes, we rebuilt, and the main house now includes three grandsons: Jacob, Kyle, and Luke, as well as Ryan and his wife, Amber.
Chris was a lifelong student of the works of Dr. Rudolf Steiner and helped to start the Santa Barbara Waldorf School in 1984 for our children to attend. We sought to instill a love of nature in our children, spending summers camping and fishing. In the winters, the kids learned to ice skate at Yosemite’s outdoor rink. Their childhood on Mountain Drive involved the same building of forts and running around with neighborhood kids that Chris experienced.
Eventually, Chris would exchange wine for water, put down his jewelry tools, and start Ooty’s Scooters. He was inspired after a year abroad when he witnessed Italy’s transportation. His goal was to help Santa Barbara have “One Less Car” and have fun scooting. Ryan now owns the shop and continues this motto.
Chris was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in unlucky 2013. His persistently positive attitude was an inspiration, even to his medical team. He survived — and thrived — years past their estimates. He used his time well. He taught Jacob jewelry making and welcomed two additional grandsons. Chris learned to sail, bought a boat, and made over 20 trips to Santa Cruz Island and three to Catalina. With wind on the water, Chris found peace and ocean healing. Kauai has always been a special place for us, and we were fortunate to be gifted an amazing goodbye trip, thanks to the Dream Foundation.
Chris had continued his mother’s garden (now biodynamic). He loved working the land, caring for his bees, and sharing his guava jam. His last earthly act was to show me how to carefully stretch and fold (not knead) his famous sourdough bread.
During the last week of Chris’s life, he was surrounded by candlelight and Rosie’s beautiful floral arrangements. He was awake and aware of his journey. We were blessed to be able to have deep, heartfelt conversations.
Chris Neely passed into spirit early on the morning of January 4, 2020. A three-day vigil was held with family and close friends. He chose the 12 holy nights, the time between Christmas and Epiphany. These nights represent the 12 months ahead. Some believe that during this time, the veil between the earthly and spiritual worlds thins. It is a time to ponder and prepare for the coming year.
We feel Chris’s presence and the deepening of bonds among our family; his sister, Tessa; his brother, Jeff; and our friends. Toward the end of his life, Chris often spoke of the importance of kindness. Kindness and love. January 4 was also the annual Christmas bird count, which we participate in. This year, the birds were especially abundant around the canyon house. Chris’s nickname was Ooty (as in hoot), and we continue to see and hear many owls, a symbol of wisdom.
We are grateful for the wisdom and kindness Chris shared with us. And under his gaze, we all live on.
A celebration of Chris Neely’s wonderful life will be held in the spring.