Timonium youngster's growing knowledge of 9/11 tells the tale of family

At nearly every stop in Daniel Walker McNeal's life, his brief, dynamic life is memorialized in some way.

The same portrait that hangs in his sister Kathleen Sheeler's Timonium living room hangs at Loyola Blakefield, where a scholarship is named for the former student body president.

The Daniel Walker McNeal Service Award is given annually to the graduating MBA student who "exemplifies the finest characteristics of a successful Georgetown graduate."

And at every dedication or memorial ceremony, a living tribute to McNeal is present — in the form of his nephew, Danny.

Daniel Walker McNeal was killed when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2011. On Aug. 20, 2002, Kathleen Sheeler gave birth to her first son, and named him after her late brother: Daniel Michael Sheeler.

Now 9 years old, Danny forges his own identity, while keeping the memory of his uncle alive.

Kathleen and Chris Sheeler never hid the truth about Uncle Danny from any of their children, including daughters McKenzie, 6, and Reese, 4.

They started slowly. First, they said Uncle Danny was killed when an airplane crashed into his building.

As their son got older, they divulged that bad people purposely flew the planes into the building, but were always careful not to tell him too much.

Now, Danny knows all about the hijacked planes and those responsible for the attacks. He's beginning to understand not only what happened to his uncle, but the ramifications it's had on the world.

When Kathleen recently mentioned the new airport security measures to Danny, who is a bit afraid to fly, his young mind began to race.

"I have a question," he interjected. "How did the people get on the airplane with guns?"

"They didn't have guns," his mother answered. "That's the thing, security back —"

"What'd they have?"

"They had what they call box cutters."

"What's that?"

"Just like small little knives, but —"

"They're allowed to bring those?"

"No, well —"

"Then how'd they do it?"

"That's what I'm telling you," his mother said. "What you know is all you know, but before that, airplane security wasn't as strict as it is now."

And with that, Danny is one step closer to understanding that the world his uncle lived in and the world he was born into are vastly different from one another, though they're separated by little more than a year.

While some details are hard to grasp, his parents believe that Danny understands more about 9/11 than his classmates at Immaculate Conception School.

Danny has never discussed his uncle with his best friend, Douglas, and only really discusses him with family members. He's not sure friends would understand.

"My uncle died, and a lot of theirs didn't," he said. "He died on 9/11, and a lot of theirs didn't."

Though he never met his uncle, Danny knows all about him.

Danny knows his uncle was born in March, was named Umpire of the Year by the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council at age 14, went to Boston College and got his master's at Georgetown. He knows Uncle Danny was a Loyola Don. He wants to be one, too.

When Kathleen thinks back to when she was a child — she was just a year younger than her brother Daniel — she notices plenty of other similarities between the two.

"Their physical appearance is fairly similar," she said. "Danny definitely has his gift of gab, and his knowledge of sports.

"And he's sweet. They both have very sweet, loving, generous personalities."

Kathryn McNeal, Danny's grandmother, spends a lot of time with "her little buddy," teaching him life lessons and helping his studies the same way she did with Daniel.

Despite how quickly he was born after Daniel's death, his family is careful not to view Danny as a second coming.

"[His grandmother] knows that Danny's not her son, but I think she looks at him the way she would have looked at her own son years back," Michael Sheeler said.

There are differences. Danny plays soccer and baseball. Uncle Danny wasn't an athlete, though as team manager, he received honorary letters from Loyola's football, basketball, and soccer teams.

Yet the fact that Danny is the nephew and spitting image of Daniel McNeal — his namesake, class president, debate team captain, and friend of so many of Danny's classmate's fathers — could weigh on Danny as he grows older.

"My brother was such an accomplished person that I think he's got a hard act to follow," Kathleen said. "Too many times, people expect him to be [Dan Jr.], and it's tough on him.

"He doesn't realize it yet, but we realize it. He's got a lot to live up to his uncle. He'll see it down the road.

"But I think each year, he'll learn more and more, and comprehend more and more."

"My uncle died. … He died on 9/11"

Daniel Michael Sheeler

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