Years before he put on a blue uniform, slain New Orleans Police Department Officer Marcus McNeil had a different job: Teaching young children how to read.

From 2006 to 2011, McNeil worked as a children’s literacy coach with the Children’s Defense Fund in New Orleans. The 6- to 8-year-olds he taught adored him, his mentor there said.

“He was fondly called by all of his students ‘Mr. Marcus,’ and was a joy to be with,” said Mary Joseph, the former director of the non-profit organization. “A jewel is gone.”

McNeil, 29, was shot and killed while on patrol in New Orleans East early Friday. Police have released few details about the incident so far, but sources told the New Orleans Advocate that 30-year-old Darren Bridges is suspected of killing him.

Years before the shootout that claimed his life, McNeil was a student at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, the historically black institution that has produced many of the city’s most prominent leaders.

In 2006, McNeil matriculated as a student at Dillard University. At the same time that he carried a full class load there, he worked 20 to 30 hours a week as an intern with the Children’s Defense Fund. He also spent his summers with the non-profit group.

Many of New Orleans’s youngest students had spent months or years away from home after Hurricane Katrina. McNeil’s task was to get them up to speed in reading before they returned to school. Inside his classroom, he read his students stories and sometimes even acted out characters with his young charges.

“He was a teacher at heart,” Joseph said.

McNeil’s passions went beyond the classroom as well. Joseph said that he had a special interest in education policy. His area of focus was on preventing children from entering what she called “the cradle-to-prison pipeline.”

“He participated in forums and workshops, helped to train others about what the issues are regarding why young people are not succeeding in school,” Joseph said.

Joseph said she saw a dark irony in the fact that his death came “in this kind of way, for something that he worked so hard to try to eradicate.”

After McNeil graduated from Dillard in 2010, Joseph said she lost touch with him. He worked as a banker at a First NBC Bank branch in Metairie from 2011 until he joined the force in 2014. But one day last year, Joseph ran into McNeil on the street again.

“Hey, Miss J!” McNeil told her. “I’m on the police force now, looking forward to a good career.”

Joseph said she was surprised to see a man she always imagined as a teacher on the force, but she smiled and wished him well.

“Police officers are servant-leaders as well, so I would think that it would get him closer to wanting to see some of those changes that he worked hard on,” she said. “He was definitely a role model for young people.”

McNeil’s death has left his former colleagues at the Children’s Defense Fund devastated, Joseph said. She said she felt a special shock because her son is also a police officer.

“The world was just at his feet for the gifts that he had to offer. This is a tragedy,” she said. “This hits to the heart.” 

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge. | (504) 636-7432