KNIGHT EXEMPLAR of the Academy of Fine Arts
Posthumously Awarded to ROBERT DEAN NEAPOLITAN
FOR his determination in spite of all odds, passion for visual arts and the theatre, positive attitude, sense of adventure, and humor.
Knight Exemplar is awarded to an individual, living or deceased, of largely unrecognized talent who real world Academy believes exemplifies the soul and passion of each of our Five Academies. We hope all of the students who go through our program live exemplary lives like these five.
Robert Dean Neapolitan was born on June 5, 1963 in Little Falls, New Jersey—a suburb of New York City. From a very young age, Robert, or “Bobby/Bob” to his friends and family, was interested in the visual and performing arts. Bobby’s sister Charlene recalls an amusing story of her first memory of his passion for art; the Neapolitan family was once sending out a holiday card. When a young Bobby saw the card, he immediately rejected it on stylistic grounds and proceeded to redesign his own version of the card, complete with fancy lettering and design. From that point on, Bobby would not only design all of the family’s cards and correspondence, but he would also become interested in drawing. His brother Joseph recalls a very young Bobby drawing the characters from the “Peanuts” cartoon over and over.
As Bobby grew into his teenage and young adult years, he further expanded his artistic interests into the venues of fantasy, especially Conan the Barbarian, which was a favorite subject as well as a point of artistic inspiration. The influence of the fantasy genre permeates his art (see Exhibits). As an artist, he began signing many of his works as “Neo,” derived from his last name, “Neapolitan.” “Neo” also forayed into the performing arts, becoming involved with his high school’s theater program. What family and friends perhaps remember most about Neo was his mischievous sense of humor, something which would remain intact even in the face of his impending sickness.
Bobby’s symptoms predated his eventual diagnosis by two or three years. Perhaps it first began with a slight loss of sensation in his extremities; Robert’s brother remembers Bobby having great trouble putting on his baseball glove. Perhaps it began when Bobby stumbled for the first time walking home from school; as Bobby’s sister recalls, he would fall in the same spot almost every day, and he was full of cuts and bruises from recurrent falls. Whichever it was, Bobby and his family did not recognize, nor had they even heard of the name of the disease with which he would shortly be diagnosed. Eventually, the family realized that something had to be wrong, and they took Bobby to the doctor.
September 1981 would bring the biggest blow to Bobby’s life and nothing short of disaster for his entire family. At age 18, Bobby was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (M.S.). No one in the Neapolitan family had heard of this strange disease, and they did not yet understand its unforgiving scope.
Multiple sclerosis is an especially cruel disease because it often relapses and remits. Some days are better than others. In addition, it is a disease of varying scales, and its symptoms are difficult to predict and manifest differently in different people. Some people with more mild forms of M.S. live relatively normal and full lives. Others may not be as fortunate. In Bobby's case, it would be the latter.
1. Bobby during his high school years. 2. Bobby dancing with his sister Charlene on her wedding day. 3. Bobby in his wheelchair with his mother, June. 4. Bobby and his parents at a multiple sclerosis event posing with the Saturday Night Live actor Joe Piscopo.
We can glean Bobby’s attitude towards being diagnosed and living with a lifelong illness from his writings and his interactions with others. The title of a letter he sent out to other M.S. patients in the New Jersey area was titled “I’VE GOT M.S. --- SO WHAT !!”. His positivism as well as rejection of limitations, humor, and rebelliousness shines through in the letter. He certainly resented his disease as well, as he refers to M.S. as “a cruel jest played on a select few” (Exhibit 4). In this letter, it is clear Bobby wanted nothing more but to form an acting troupe of people afflicted with M.S.
During his senior year of high school, Bobby was accepted to his dream school, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, one of the nation's most prestigious art schools, with a full ride. Bobby was determined to attend and live out his dream of creating his own comic book series, despite his M.S. He had artist and writer colleagues who were interested in partnerships. Before college began, Bobby and his mother went for a “dry run” to Manhattan to simulate a day on campus and make sure Bobby could handle student life. Bobby stumbled and fell on the subway and the steps of the School of Visual Arts campus. Onlookers snickered because they thought Bobby was drunk. One could imagine the shame in having to be picked up and supported by his mother while walking onto the campus of his dream college. Bobby’s greatest blessing became a “cruel jest,” as he describes in his letter. A man with no sensation in has hand could not possibly hold a pencil or pen.
And he would not ever again. These drawings in the exhibit stop shortly after his teenage years were over. He would never attend even a day of his dream school. The family tried to send him to a local college, but this too proved to be impossible due to his overwhelming physical limitations.
Bobby would live trapped in his body for over two more decades. The transformation was not immediate, and he would be able to enjoy events such as his sister’s wedding (pictured). Eventually, he would remain bedridden and wheelchair-bound and would be able to communicate only through a soft mumbling voice, mostly the result of an emergency procedure to his neck. But in his entrapment, he never lost his humor or sense of fun. He was always surrounded by his family. His parents would take care of him for nearly all of their remaining lives, and they converted their home into a two family complex with a wheelchair elevator and a special room for Bobby with hospital bedding. He was able to watch television, and one of his pastimes was watching his favorite comedians and actors appear on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” He lived with his parents Joseph and June, his brother Joe, his sister Charlene, his brother-in-law Dave, and his two nieces, Stephanie and Ashley.
On October 8, 2006, Robert Dean Neapolitan died at age 43, surrounded by the love and warmth of his family.
Exhibit 1. "Greytalon" was a comic series Bobby created when he was only 16 years old. Click the arrows on the side of the image to scroll through the pages.
Exhibit 2. An original fantasy-themed poster-sized image Bobby created. It is featured as the banner image of this webpage.
Exhibit 3. The character "Neo," Bobby's caricature of himself, is recognizable in many of his drawings and sketches. Here he takes the form of a traveler, a backpacker, a warrior, and a student.
Exhibit 4. Bobby's letter to multiple sclerosis patients in the North Jersey area was entitled "I’VE GOT M.S. --- SO WHAT !!”
We do not believe Bobby’s determination was fruitless, nor do we believe any life should be forgotten. His memory already lives on in his friends, family and all who knew him. Now, we hope that his story and his artwork will be able to inspire people on a grander scale than Bobby could have ever imagined. Perhaps someday, an artist will incorporate Bobby’s caricature into a comic or series, and Bobby’s dream can be realized in spite of disease and even his untimely death.
This biography is dedicated to Bobby and his family.