‘Thanks, Nep’: 94-year-old donates millions to rural school district
Devin Bodkin, IdahoEdNews.org & Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com
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SALMON — Neptune Lynch, 94, pushed his shovel into the dirt where a $2.5 million sports complex for students will soon be built.
A complex that Nep, as his friends call him, is paying for.
Nep and members of the Salmon community ceremonially broke ground last week for the facility, which will house basketball gyms and other space for kids in the Salmon School District and the local community. Nep donated funds for the project to the Salmon Education Foundation.
“I got to thinking … since I’m not going to take (the money) with me when I go that I could do something good with it,” he told EdNews.
And Lynch’s donation is helping the project gain momentum, despite the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Members of the community (came out of their houses Monday morning) to prepare the dirt and footings for the gym,” Jim Bob Infanger, a Salmon resident and building contractor, tells EastIdahoNews.com. “We’ve got 24 dump trucks, two large excavators, two dozers, three front-end loaders and we’ve moved four to five thousand yards of material” (as of 5 p.m. Monday), Infanger says.
The plans for the building are not yet complete and the total cost has still not been determined, but Infanger estimates they’re still half a million dollars short. The entire community is coming together to donate their time and make up the difference.
Efforts to build a new gym for Salmon High School have been at a standstill for the last several years, Infanger says. Some of the preliminary work was completed five years ago, but there was never enough funding to move it forward. Voters rejected measures to fund the project more than six times in recent years.
“It’s not a rich town,” said Nep. “It doesn’t have the industry it used to to keep bringing money in for the schools.”
Neps’ affinity for Salmon stems from his desire to help the community where his son attended school and played basketball. His original intent was to start a scholarship fund.
“Instead of doing a scholarship, would you consider funding our gymnasium for the school?” Infanger remembers Bill Allen, an acquaintance of Nep’s and a 20-year member of the local education foundation, saying to Lynch. “We’ve only got a three-quarter court gym for 12 grades.”
“Sure. I’ll give you $2.5 million and see what you can do with it,” Lynch replied, according to Infanger.
Though the current gymnasium is in great shape, Ryan Allen, a managing member of the accounting firm that handles Lynch’s finances, says it isn’t big enough to accommodate the growing number of students who use the space at overlapping times.
“We only have one gym here for kids in sixth grade forward (to use). Both boys and girls have to share that one high school gym,” Allen says.
The new gymnasium will include a main gymnasium and a separate auxiliary gym, Allen says. The 30,000-square-foot space will allow more kids to participate in sports.
“A lot of kids can’t even play right now because practice is held at 6:00 in the morning or doesn’t start until 8:00 at night. This is going to allow them to go to practice after school” (and provide a space where other events can occur simultaneously).
Bill Allen helped guide the process.
“I went out on a whim and asked him, and he went for it,” Bill Allen said. “His generosity will help at least 85 kids a year for up to 100 years.”
“I wanted to do it,” Lynch says. “I made the decision all on my own.”
Other factors fueled Lynch’s decision as well. Nep lives in Missoula, Mont., but has deep roots in the central Idaho mountain town flanked by miles of timber country.
From 1958 to 1977, he ran a sawmill on the Salmon River’s North Fork. In its heyday, Nep’s 42-foot band saw buzzed out tons of lumber for use across the northwest.
He always “hung tough and made improvements,” but when the environmental movement of the 1970s put a hurt on business, Nep traded the mill for a 14-acre lumber yard in Missoula and focused on another local pursuit: the Stagecoach Hotel that still lodges guests in 100 rooms along the Salmon River.
Nep, who doesn’t like to “blow smoke,” reminisced on the old days, from breaking ground for the hotel’s first 50 rooms to the day he traded the mill: Oct. 28, 1973.
Yes, he remembers the date.
“I may not remember the date a week from now, but I’ll remember dates and names from many years ago,” Nep said.
During last week’s groundbreaking, students clad in sports attire gathered around Nep to express their gratitude.
“Thanks, Nep,” several said in unison.
Ryan Allen says it’s inspiring to see how this project has brought the community together and he’s appreciative of all those who are doing their part to make it work.
“Everyone is volunteering their time to do what they can, and that’s been a big lift to our community,” he says.
“We’re trying to make sure it’s a quality, first-class project,” Infanger says. “We’re just a bunch of red necks trying to make sure it’s done right.”
The local education foundation will oversee the project’s construction on district property. There are still a few hurdles to clear, such as several state inspections, but he’s hopeful the project will be in full swing in the next month.
“I’m hopeful that it could be operational by December, but part of that depends on the supply chain with this coronavirus thing,” says Infanger. “It’s a great community and even with the coronavirus scare, not one contractor has turned us down to help us get this going. It’s a miracle, really.”
The committee will “turn the key over to the district” around next April, Bill Allen says.
Portions of this story were originally posted at IdahoEdNews.org on March 29, 2020.