For St. Clair resident Paul Nealis, his love of sports and Christianity started at an early age. Now 71, he continues to enjoy both in retirement.
Athletics meant a lot in the Nealis family as Paul’s father played professional basketball for the Fort Wayne Pistons and his mother was a basketball player for St. Clair High School. In 1966, Nealis graduated from St. Clair High School along with his now wife Barbara.
After high school, he and Barbara attended Southwest Baptist University. Nealis studied physical education, biology and played golf. Barbara studied elementary education.
“While we were in college, we were very fortunate to have academic scholarships, but I also met a fellow by the name of James Payton, who recruited me into the Southwest Book Company, which sold Bible books door-to-door,” Nealis said.
During the summers of his college career, Nealis said he traveled to different states selling Bibles, which helped pay for some expenses.
“It was a successful endeavor for us, and because of that we were able to get married and because of that we were able to continue with our education and not have to work during the nine months we went to school,” he said.
On April 4, 1969, during their junior year of college, Nealis and Barbara were married at Bethel Church. When Nealis left for his summer job as a Bible salesman, his wife came along. They traveled to North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama.
His salesmanship abilities probably stemmed from his father, who was a salesman. It was both of his parents who played a role in his religious venture.
“At a young life, my mother read the Bible to me each night and she also prayed over me each night when I was a kid,” Nealis said. “She had a tremendous influence, but my father showed me how to live as a Christian.”
“At age 12, I accepted Christ as my Savior, but really didn’t know how to put that into focus until after I started really stepping out, looking at what that really meant.”
Meeting people through his sales job led him into a direction and a focus, according to Nealis.
“It probably started my feeling of service because you can’t make money by just trying to make money — it just doesn’t work,” he said.
“Placing these books within the homes and what it did for people was more important than any dollar value that you could put on.”
He added that selling Bibles was challenging. He worked 12-14 hours a day, six days a week.
“When you’re going door-to-door, you don’t know what’s behind that door, and they don’t know what’s knocking on their door, so there’s apprehension there,” Nealis said.
“It definitely made a difference in my particular life. A lot of people during that time had to go to Vietnam and had to serve there. They did an unbelievable thing; I have a tremendous admiration because not only were they attacked by the enemy, but they were attacked at home too.”
In 1970, Nealis and his wife accepted teaching positions with Fox C-6 School District in Arnold. Over the course of his career, Nealis taught physical education, biology, coached sports and was an athletic director. He said Barbara taught first grade.
After they moved around a few times, they moved into a newly built home on Barbara’s parents’ farm on Highway 30 in 1980. They commuted 40 minutes to and from work for 30 years. They retired in 2000.
Together, they have one son named Curt who followed in his parents’ footsteps. He graduated from Southwest Baptist and developed a fondness for basketball and golf, according to Nealis.
Curt also taught biology and was his father’s assistant basketball coach for two years at Seckman High School within the Fox School District. Currently, he teaches biology and is an athletic director for a high school in Illinois. Nealis added that his three grandchildren are also involved in sports.
“The thing that we’re really proud of for our whole family is everyone of them has accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior,” he said.
About six years ago, Nealis became involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). He said he started out as a board member for the Ozark Gateway Area of the organization and has been chairman of the board for the past three years.
According to fca.org, “FCA focuses on serving local communities around the globe by engaging, equipping and empowering coaches and athletes to unite, inspire and change the world through the Gospel.”
Nealis added that the purpose “is to reach out into schools through coaches to empower lives so that the integrity can come out through Christ-like living.”
As a board member, Nealis said he is in charge of fundraising and helps put on a golf classic every year held at the Franklin County Country Club.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to raise close to $170,000 in the last five years,” he said.
For more information about the St. Louis Area FCA organization, visit stlfca.org.