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July-August 2013

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In Memoriam: Neal A. Pfaff (1947–2013)

Neal A. Pfaff, who lived near Columbus, Ohio, passed away on 1 April of this year. Many mineral collectors and readers of Rocks & Minerals will have heard the name before, but because illness forced Neal to retire in 2000, there are probably many who did not personally know him. I am happy and honored for this opportunity to share a little bit about Neal. Those of you who were friends with Neal realize he would never want any fuss made about him, but I think all would agree that a tribute is in order.

Neal was born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio. Like many collectors, his first experience with minerals came while on a family vacation. He was about eight years old, and his parents had stopped at a little rock shop when Neal caught the bug. On subsequent vacations, rock shops became a staple of family trips; there was also a special trip to the famed fluorite area of Cave-in-Rock, Illinois. Neal's interest in minerals continued to grow, and as soon as he got his driver's license, he was off on collecting trips of his own, mostly to nearby quarries in Ohio. After graduating from high school in 1965, he enrolled at the Colorado School of Mines. He spent a year there but chose not to return for a second term. Neal enlisted in the army in 1969 and was honorably discharged in 1972. While in the military, he was stationed in Ethiopia and Turkey. After returning to the United States, he went back to college, this time to Ohio State University (OSU), in Columbus, where he pursued his passion for minerals by studying geology and mineralogy. He was there from 1972 to 1975 and then accepted a job with a major oil corporation in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was his first and last taste of corporate America, and in late 1975 he decided it was time to pursue his collecting dream.

In 1974, while attending OSU, Neal met his lifelong companion and wife, Chris, who was working on her degree in geology and mineralogy. Their paths crossed often in the geology lounge. With the charm unique to Neal, he convinced Chris to go on a date with him—collecting geodes in Brown County, Indiana. On what would turn out to be the first of many times when Chris shouldered the weight of their relationship, Neal was able to collect a large, just-out-of-reach geode by standing on Chris's shoulders. After three years, and many collecting trips later, Neal and Chris were married in 1977. Shortly thereafter they moved to Yuma, Arizona, where Chris worked for the U.S. Geological Survey while Neal went on various collecting trips, notably to recover quartz and pyrite in King County, Washington. As Neal's collecting abilities became better known, he was asked to participate in many additional collecting ventures, including those at the Maid of Sunshine mine (Arizona), the Rowley mine (Arizona), and Mina la Farola in Copiapó, Chile. Later, Neal went on collecting ventures in New Mexico, Arizona, and other localities in the United States and Canada.

Neal's first venture as a mineral collector, however, was digging millerite at Halls Gap, Kentucky. (Millerite is the “M” in M. Phantom Minerals, which later became the Pfaff's business name.) Having personally collected at Hall's Gap with Neal, I can assure you he was the master. While I was breaking off 2-inch flakes of limestone with no geodes, he was splitting foot-long sections of rock and knocking out millerite geodes en masse. Neal had a special ability to look at a rock face and know how to work it, when to finesse it, and when brute force was the answer. I always appreciated the time we spent collecting and the things I learned from him on such trips.

Neal's passion was always collecting minerals, although his long-term goal was never to be a mineral dealer. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, most collecting projects were small, and the reality was you had to sell the things you collected to be able to continue collecting. So, as M. Phantom Minerals, Neal and Chris started doing mineral shows, especially in the eastern half of the country. Even today, thirteen years after their last show, collectors still remember M. Phantom Minerals for its incredible selection of aesthetic minerals at reasonable prices. Neal's philosophy was that if he gave collectors nice minerals for a fair price, they would be customers for life. We know this proved correct, as folks lined up early to see Neal and Chris at many shows. As Neal's rheumatoid arthritis took its toll, he was no longer able to collect or travel the long distances between shows, and, in 2000, he and Chris sold their remaining inventory and Neal retired. With the exception of their couple of years' stint in Yuma, Arizona, Neal and Chris lived and based their business in Columbus, Ohio.

In retirement, Neal revisited another childhood passion—coin collecting. Not only did it give him something fun to do, but it also provided a distraction from his ever-decreasing mobility and ever-increasing pain. Through all his illness years, I have never known anyone who was in so much pain yet complained so little about it. Neal was always concerned about everyone else's problems and always looked forward to hearing how all his old show buddies were doing. Neal had a way of getting into the hearts of his many friends and his customers. He did not do it on purpose; he just had an infectious, candid, enthusiastic personality that made you miss him when he was not around. During the past few years it became ever more difficult for Neal to send e-mails or even talk on the phone, and he missed the contact with his friends and fellow collectors. So, for all of us who had the pleasure of calling Neal a friend, we take comfort in knowing what an incredible group of collectors he nurtured; we take pride in the specimens we bought from him and Chris; and we will always keep him in our hearts.

Paul Cory is president of Iteco, Inc., a company founded in 1987 and specializing in rhodochrosite and other American gemstones and jewelry.

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