Gary James' Interview With
Do you remember where you were on August 16th, 1977, the day Elvis died? Mike McNeill remembers. He was in Memphis, Tennessee working with the Shelby County Sheriff's Department's Emergency Services. When it was learned that Elvis had died, Mike, along with his parents and two brothers who also served in Emergency Services, were called to report for duty at Graceland to handle emergency medical care. Mike McNeill's story is unique. With the eyes of the world on Memphis that day, Mike McNeill was there. He was in the front lines. This is his story.
Q - Mike, you were an Elvis fan?
A - To a certain extent. I liked some of his music. I liked the Gospel and the patriotic music that he had. One of my favorite songs that I had of his was "American Trilogy". That's the type of music he had that I really did like.
Q - Had you ever seen Elvis in concert?
A - No. I never had the opportunity to.
Q - Had you ever seen him riding around Memphis or down by the gates of Graceland?
A - No. Growing up in my teenage years in Memphis, we drove by Graceland all the time. Of course you'd always look up the drive (way) to see if you did see him. There was always people out front of the gates, but I never did have the opportunity to see him. But the only time I saw him in person, was when he was laying there in the casket.
Q - What was the talk around Shelby County Sheriff's Department Emergency Services the day Elvis died? What were people saying?
A - Well, they couldn't believe it. I was actually trying to think what I was doing on the day that he died, the 16th. I was doing a lot of part-time work with different people at the time. Of course Emergency Services was a volunteer position. I remember hearing it on the radio, just a few minutes after they announced it at Baptist Hospital. I went out to the Sheriff's sub-station, where our unit was stationed. Everybody was talking about it. It was just like one of those dis-belief things. Even on the 16th we didn't have any idea what was gonna happen, what was gonna occur on the next day. It was one of those once in a lifetime things. We never had any idea what we were in store for.
Q - So you, your brothers, your mother and father all worked as volunteers tending to the people who fainted outside the gates of Graceland?
A - My mother, my Dad, Doug (brother) and myself all were there at Graceland. But I can remember somewhere on the 17th we got a call, 9, 10 o'clock in the morning, that they were calling the unit out. Doug was working for the same company he works for now, the printing company. He was at work and left work. I went to the Sheriff's Department. We got our truck. We responded down to Graceland. The Sheriff's sub-station is on the East end of Memphis. So then we had to go all the way around town, around the interstate to get to Graceland. I followed the Sheriff's Department unit in my personal truck. We were running Emergency to get out there. By the time we got there, there were already several thousand people outside the gates of Graceland. They opened the gates so we could get in and we were trying to figure out where we (were) gonna park. We went through the gates. Our Sheriff's unit parked in the drive. I actually jumped the curb and parked under the trees there on the left-hand side of the drive at Graceland. Some of the helicopter shots they've taken, you can actually see my truck under the trees there. At that time there were already several thousand people there. This was, best as I remember, shortly before noon, on the 17th.
Q - Why did authorities allow people to congregate outside the Graceland gates? I believe a couple of people were killed in front of Graceland.
A - Yup. On the night of the 17th, after the gates were closed there were still thousands of people there. At that point in time I believe they had shut down Bellevue, before they changed the name to Elvis Presley Blvd. They had closed two of the lanes closest to Graceland, trying to cut down on some of it. I don't know why they didn't shut the highway down. It would've made sense to me, but I just have no idea.
Q - What did the people milling around the front of Graceland expect to see? Elvis' family? Did they know that Elvis was going to be shown in the casket in Graceland?
A - I don't know what time they decided to open the gates. I really don't know. When we first got there, we were just told that there's a lot of people here. In Memphis, in the dog days of Summer, the way it was, it was hot. Humidity was high and they knew we were gonna have medical issues out with the crowd. And that was pretty much an understatement. As the day went on, even before they opened the gates, people started passing out from the heat. That's kind of really when we kicked in and started having to get through the crowds. Get people out of the crowds, transport 'em by ambulance to the hospital. We kind of set up a make-shift first aid station just inside the gates, right there by the guard house, under the trees. It was cool there, or cooler. So we were bringing people in there, letting 'em sit down, trying to get 'em cooled off, giving 'em water, that type of thing.
Q - Was it all ages in front of Graceland?
A - It was all ages. Men, women, children, young children, older people. It was a complete mixture. They were bringing notes and stickin' 'em on the gates. Teddy bears. Flowers. It was the beginning of a memorial basically. People were just bringing things and putting 'em there in front of the gate. I remember a gentleman, and I call him a gentleman, a biker type person, pulling up on a motorcycle. The crowd just kind of parted for him. He put a Teddy bear at the gate. A burly biker type guy. But he walked up and laid a Teddy bear there and then got back on his motorcycle and left.
Q - The love and affection people had and have for Elvis Presley.
A - It was unreal.
Q - You, your mother and father had a private viewing of Elvis in the casket at Graceland?
A - Yeah. After the gates were closed, originally when they told us the gates were gonna be open for two hours and I kind of joked about it and said "Two hours was the longest two days of my life." But they extended keeping the gates open awhile longer and after the final time they shut the gates, they asked us, all the Emergency Service people there, would we like to go up and see him? During the viewings when the public was going up there, we were taking care of them. So we walked up. I remember going up with my mother. My Dad was a Lieutenant with the unit, so he had some things he was taking care of. He came up after we did. My Mother and I walked up the drive and went in the house. I can almost picture it today. The casket was off to the right. I believe they called it the music room. They had a white piano in there. The coffin was set up right there next to the piano. We looked at him and paid our respects. As we were walking out, we saw some of the family in a room directly across from it. I remember seeing Mr. Vernon there and Ann Margaret. There were other people sitting at the table with them, but that's just the two I picked up on.
Q - In other words, there could have been more famous people there, but you just didn't know who they were.
A - That's right. There very well could have been more there. I'd seen Mr. Vernon before, out before. That's just the two I picked up on. We left and some of our other officers came in.
Q - When the public was exiting Graceland, having filed past Elvis' casket, did you hear what they were saying?
A - Just they couldn't believe it. Why was he taken from them so early? That kind of thing. There were several thousand people there, but it was very subdued, the atmosphere that was out in front of Graceland. There wasn't any hollering or screaming. Most of the people were respective of what was going on. You'd hear somebody holler every once in a while, "We love you Elvis!" and that type of thing. But it was just a real subdued atmosphere.
Q - Did you hear anybody say "That doesn't look like Elvis" or "That's not Elvis in the casket"?
A - Not really. Of course, a lot of people said "He looks different than the last time I saw him." But I never heard anyone say "That's not Elvis!" I never heard that.
Q - You ever hear anybody say "The body is sweating"?
A - No. In years after, I've hear some of the stories. I can assure you there was a body in the casket. It wasn't a wax mannequin or anything like that. This is the first time I have ever said this, but while my mother and I were standing there, she reached down and touched his hand that had a TCB ring on it. I'm thinking to myself in horror, "Mother, you're going to get us arrested by our own Sheriff's Department." I swear to you, this is the first time I've ever told anyone this. But she reached down and touched his hand. Her only comment was "He's cold," which is to be expected. But I can assure you that it was not a wax statue in that coffin. To me, only having seen Elvis on TV and in the papers, I mean I never saw him in person, you know how it is when you see someone in-person, they always look different than they did on TV. But looking at him, you could tell that it was Elvis Presley. The sideburns and everything. He was just laying there peaceful.
Q - Do you ever go back to Graceland on the anniversary of his death?
A - No. I never have. My wife and I were married in May of 1983. The day after our wedding, we didn't leave town on a honeymoon. We got away from the house. We went to Graceland basically on our honeymoon and that is the only time I've ever been there to Graceland since then. There's a lot of people I know who make that pilgrimage every single year, but there's no way if I was to go there during that, that it's gonna mean the same thing to me that it did that day when I walked inside Graceland and saw him. It would not be the same thing. I left Memphis in 1996 and moved here to Missouri. During like say, middle of August and leading up to it, I've driven by there on the night of the 16th when they were having the candlelight vigil and there were always thousands of people there then. Memphis goes nuts during Elvis week.
Q - So, what do you work at here in Missouri?
A - My full-time job is I'm a consultant with a communications company. We work with Homeland Security agencies, with radio communications. Then I still volunteer in Emergency Services. I'm a training officer for a fire district here. The department we've got (has) 7 fire stations and about 75 firemen. I've been with them since I've moved here in '96 and I'm Training Officer for the Fire District.
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