In his farewell column as publisher of The Charlotte Observer in December 1997, Rolfe Neill said that in 40-odd years, illness had kept him away from work for less than a week. He attributed his robust health to good Iredell County genes and “the elixir of job joy.” Neill, one of modern Charlotte’s most indelible leaders and publisher of the Observer from 1975 until his retirement in 1997, died early Friday at age 90 of complications from peritoneal cancer, his daughter Ingrid Ebert of Kernersville said. No public service is planned. Neill almost died in October. His nine months of unexpected and additional life turned into an extended celebration with family and friends, Ebert said.
Neill, according to his daughter, had no interest in a funeral. “He told me, ‘I’m not going to be there anyway.’ ” He had five children, two stepchildren, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Neill’s career coincided with a golden era for the Observer in which the paper won three of its five Pulitzer Prizes. Over three decades, Neill left an oversized footprint on greater Charlotte, just as he did on the hulking newspaper offices at Tryon and Stonewall that are now gone. Neill also formed productive personal and working relationships with business and political leaders across North Carolina who might be pilloried in the newspaper’s editorial pages the next day.
“He had one foot in being the publisher of the newspaper and one foot in the community, and he was a force in both. It takes a unique talent to keep those positions separate,” said former Duke Power CEO Bill Grigg, a longtime friend. “You can certainly say Rolfe is one of a handful of community leaders who over the past 40 years did more than just about anybody to make Charlotte what it is today,” Grigg said. “ You can put him up there with the McColls, the Belks, the Brookshires. ... He was a force for good.” Former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt said Neill’s reporting instincts and commitment to a better Charlotte drove him to become involved with civic efforts on multiple fronts.
“Each publisher has to chart his or her course, and Rolfe charted his to be active in the community,” Gantt said. “He always listened very carefully. He would not accept anything on the surface. He used the instincts of a great citizen and always asked the important questions, the questions other people might not ask. “You always wanted to know: What did Rolfe Neill think?”
THE DAILY PRODUCT
As a publisher, and despite the elixir of loving his work, Neill was not always pleased with the daily product. In that same final column, Neill told readers: “My aspiration had been for us to become a distinguished newspaper. … In this, I failed. Aware that we’re a guest in your home, I meant for us to act as one. My apologies for errors in judgment or taste.” In a June 2017 interview in preparation for this obituary, Neill elaborated: “Part of what I was talking about was that probably half our readers disagreed with us politically. We needed to be acutely aware of that by making sure the other side was given its day in court with letters (to the editor) and guest columns.
“For example,” he went on, “several phrases appeared in the Observer with regularity. ‘Arch conservative Jesse Helms,’ for one. I agree. Jesse Helms was an arch conservative. But was there any line in any edition of the Charlotte Observer in which we called Teddy Kennedy ‘an arch liberal’? “Those sorts of subtle biases,” Neill said, “cause people to form judgments about us and our prejudices.”
NEILL AND ‘THE GROUP’
Neill likewise served as a sounding board for “the Group,” a highly select and unelected cadre of center-city business leaders who exerted enormous influence in the 1980s and ‘90s over how the city grew and matured. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with the likes of then-Bank of America Chairman Hugh McColl and Duke Power’s Bill Lee, Neill helped forge public-private partnerships that either added new cultural amenities to uptown’s map or addressed pressing community issues such as poverty and affordable housing.
His willingness to publicly criticize his own newspaper may have reddened ears inside the Observer but earned Neill added respect throughout the community. So did his willingness to participate in discussions over civic and political endeavors that never found their way into the newspaper. McColl, who says the Group “really ran the city for 15 years,” cites Neill’s role of being a skilled listener and problem-solver with propelling the behind-the-scenes, pro-city agenda. “My point is that he was a balanced person — a business leader who cared about the city greatly and committed his company to do what was right for Charlotte,” McColl said. “We did a pretty good job building a helluva city, and I don’t think we should underestimate Rolfe’s contributions to the good ideas we had. Think of all the damn things we’ve done.”
McColl, a frequent critic of the newspaper, also said emerging Charlotte benefited from having the Observer.
The newspaper staff offered reasoned opinions on its editorial pages but informed its readers about the rapidly changing issues of their times, the retired bank executive said. “It’s very hard for me to say this, but I used to do a lot of bragging about the Observer when I was traveling out of town,” McColl said. “We were blessed to have that. Charlotte did not have the hidden politics of a lot of other cities. “And a lot of that had to do with Rolfe.”
‘DO IT RIGHT’ Born Dec. 4, 1932, in the small Surry County town of Mount Airy to Kenneth Neill and Carmen Goforth Neill, the family moved frequently, as Kenneth Neill tried one dairy job after another. Both parents’ roots ran deep in Piedmont North Carolina, the Neills in Iredell County (where in the 1930s and ‘40s the Scottish pronunciation “Nail” still prevailed) and the Goforths in Lincoln County.
By the time he was in fifth grade and settled in Columbus, Georgia, 100 miles southwest of Atlanta, Rolfe Neill had attended five different grammar schools.
Neill described his parents as hard-working, middle-class people. “It was the Depression,” he said. “There wasn’t anything to do and no money, unless you had a rich uncle. You were expected to work and do chores. My sister Toni did the dishes. I mopped the floors. My daddy finished college at North Carolina State. My mother finished high school. They set a standard of ‘do it right.’ And that’s the way you did things.” Starting at age 10, Neill, also a Boy Scout, rose daily at 5 a.m. to deliver the Columbus Enquirer, a $12-a-week job he would keep until high school graduation.
“I loved the darkness,” Neill recalled. “I loved riding a bicycle. I loved taking that paper and sliding it on the slick enamel of people’s porches like a bowling alley. “The truth is,” said Neill, “I’ve always liked work.” But on visits to Mooresville, his grandmother Neill spoiled him. “She did everything for me,” Neill said. His father’s mother was a great snuff-dipping storyteller who once heard a rustle in the yard and shot through an upstairs window screen with the biggest pistol young Rolfe had ever seen.
She could grab a chicken by the neck and fling it on the chopping block. She dug potatoes right out of the ground, sliced them and fried them up for her grandson. Her black wash pot was suspended on a tripod, and Neill watched fascinated as she lit a fire under it, brought the water to a boil and tossed in dirty clothes. That wash pot would come to mind when Neill was 19 and a newlywed. Willowy Rosemary Boney had just graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the Woman’s College in Greensboro (now UNCG). Neill was a student at UNC Chapel Hill, working around the clock at the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel.
After a July wedding in Rosemary’s hometown of Clinton, the two moved into a cabin at the end of a dirt road in Orange County. If they wanted hot water for bathing or cooking, they had to build a fire. Rosemary Neill, who had been editor of her college newspaper, recalls their courtship. “I’d get a letter from him, and I would be weak in the knees.” The couple lived in Chapel Hill for two years, until he graduated with a B.A. in history. Rosemary Neill said her husband, who by now was editor of the Daily Tar Heel, failed physics three times. “That was because he was always at the newspaper and didn’t go to class.” After three decades and five children, the two divorced. According to Rosemary: “We had 30 years worth of fun. I’ve tried to remember that and move on.” ‘I AM A SMART ALECK’ Former Observer associate editor and editorial writer Jack Claiborne recalled Neill from their undergraduate days, when both worked at the Daily Tar Heel.
“He was fresh in the old Southern meaning of fresh. But I liked him. I liked his competence, his awareness, how smart he was about newspapers. “He called everybody by their first name – the governor, the chancellor – didn’t matter,” Claiborne said. “Rolfe was just very confident of himself and very self-assured. He was always on top of what was going on.” And Neill could be formidable, Claiborne said. “He got in people’s faces.” “I am a smart aleck,” Neill said when he was read the Claiborne quote. “And this has caused me to do some things and push myself into people’s faces that a more decorous person would not have done.”
After a stint in the Army, writing for Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Neill was hired as a $55-a-week-reporter for the Franklin Press, a weekly in the North Carolina mountains. In Franklin, Neill learned about customer allegiance. Subscribers, he said, referred to the paper as “my paper,” and not “the paper,” and “they read every line in it.” Before long, the Observer hired him away — to open the Gastonia bureau. A year later, in 1958, he was in Charlotte as the Observer’s business editor.
Said Claiborne: “I’ll never forget the day he came in, sat down at his desk and called Mabel on the switchboard and asked to be connected to (textile magnate) Charles Cannon. “I heard him say: ‘Hello, Charlie. This is Rolfe Neill.’ ” Neill said he knew nothing about business. “I learned by reading the Wall Street Journal and by doing a profile every Sunday about businessmen.” BACK TO CHARLOTTE From the business desk — where he made $120 a week — the Neills were off to Miami. Now 28, Neill served as editor and publisher of two small weeklies — the Coral Gables Times and the Guide. When he noticed some people took the Guide but not the Times, he went knocking. He found that the women “were omnivorous about the classifieds, and you could get a classified ad for $1 in the Guide. “I very quickly learned about the power of classified advertising.”
The next two years, he served as editor and publisher of the much larger Miami Beach Daily Sun, owned by the Miami Herald. In 1965, Neill moved to the New York Daily News, where he’d spend five years, first as assistant to the publisher, then suburban editor and finally, as one of three assistant managing editors. As editor of the Philadelphia Daily News from 1970 to 1975, Neill’s task was to clean up the “blood-and-guts” tabloid while keeping its front page compelling. “His circulation report card in Philadelphia was exemplary,” wrote former Observer reporter Mary Bishop in a 1978 profile of Neill.
But when he moved to Charlotte in 1975 at age 42 as publisher and president of the Charlotte Observer and the late Charlotte News, Neill left a largely disgruntled staff in Philadelphia. Bishop’s take was that many reporters there believed Neill neither trusted nor respected their work, “and they were chastised for missing facts other papers had, though their staffs were at least three times larger.” Observer reporters, on the other hand, tended to be especially fond of Neill. “Of course Rolfe was handsome and charming,” said the late former Observer columnist Polly Paddock. “But for those of us who worked for him, the source of his magnetism ran much deeper. He was a fine journalist with a passion for making this city better — and he fueled our desire to emulate him.”
Former Observer reporter Elizabeth Leland was especially impressed with Neill’s memory.
“He knew the names of everybody in that building, from the people who worked on the presses to the reporters and editors in the newsroom, and in many cases, he knew the names of their spouses and their children. He’d pass you on the escalator, and he’d always make a point to ask you about them. “He was one of the most personable people I’ve ever worked for,” Leland said. “I loved him for that.” Ed Williams, former Observer editorial page editor, said Neill had a lot of confidence in what was going on in the editorial department.
“I felt like he had our backs,” Williams said. “He didn’t insist we agree with him on every jot and tittle. I couldn’t have had a better person for a publisher.” MANY OPINIONS OF NEILL Other editors had other opinions. “There are two sides to Rolfe,” said Mark Ethridge, a former Observer managing editor who went on to become president and publisher of the Business Journal of Charlotte. “He is undoubtedly one of the most charming people on the face of the planet. When you think of the word ‘gracious,’ it’s Rolfe. “Only the people he was closest to saw that other side.
“He would come into my office, shut the door, take his shoes off, put his feet on my coffee table and launch into this, ’Where have I gone wrong? I’ve done everything to bring you up right, and you’ve failed me.’ “We’ve just won the damned Pulitzer Prize, and I’d think, ‘What do you want?’ And I was a kid. I was 29. “He was right most of the time. We didn’t pay enough attention to obits. He screamed that we didn’t know what was going on in the business community, and I didn’t figure that out until I left.
“The friction didn’t come from the issues,’’ Ethridge said. “It came from the handling of the issues.” The late former Observer managing editor Frank Barrows put it this way: “If Rolfe came by and wanted to have lunch with you, you were basically taken to the woodshed.” But Barrows added that in later years, there had been an awakening with Rolfe. “A degree of self-awareness. Every year or so, he would call me up and tell me what a great editor I was. Or we’d go to lunch.’’ Barrows also emphasized Neill’s charm.
“If you were putting on a dinner party, and your goal was to have a great dinner party, you’d want Rolfe. His ability on his feet in front of a room was incredible. He would move around the room, ask questions. His charisma was almost palpable. He was Phil Donahue before Phil Donahue.” Once, Barrows said, he was setting up an interview with Neill and a job candidate. They were to meet for breakfast. The job candidate asked: “How will I know who he is?” “Don’t worry,” Barrows said. “You’ll feel the force field.”
RESPECTING THE COMMUNITY Former Observer editor Rich Oppel, for many years editor of the Austin American-Statesman and later editor of the Texas Monthly in Austin, said no one in his working life had more influence on him than Rolfe Neill. “He was the smartest person I ever worked for, very strong in character and driven by high standards.
“In 15 years I never saw him meet a reader’s anger by returning fire,” Oppel went on. “He listened carefully, looked for common ground and usually found it. He responded quickly and fully if he found where his newspaper had erred or fallen short.” But Neill was not easy to work for, Oppel said. “He was uncomfortable with prolonged investigations. He once demanded in writing that I stop my ‘ceaseless thrall’ with the fraudulent fund-raising by PTL’s Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, which went on to win the 1988 public service Pulitzer. “I never did meet his expectations,” Oppel said. “I fell short of the perfection he demanded. …I never met an editor who worked for Rolfe who felt that he or she measured up.” Claiborne pointed to a particular quirk of Neill’s that may have made editors uneasy.
“Rolfe had an unusual gift,” Claiborne said. “He could look at you and see beyond your outward appearance to the soft spot within and make you feel vulnerable. It wasn’t that he was going to use it against you, but you felt you were in his control.” Neill fervently wanted his editors to respect the community and be more sensitive to readers’ tastes. In an 11-page memo to incoming Observer editor Jennie Buckner in 1993, Neill advised: Our readers “don’t like smart alecs. They don’t like superiority. …They expect us to show affection for the community that we serve even while we are its auditors.”
“Get caught loving your community,” Neill advised in an essay in the Aug. 6, 1996, issue of Editor & Publisher. “It needn’t be idolatrous, just genuine.”
‘PATRON SAINT OF THE ARTS’ Neill himself was very much a player in the corporate echelons of the Charlotte community. Soon after he arrived, he joined the Greater Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, and he backed two controversial projects — the then-proposed outer belt road and the $59 million Douglas Municipal Airport terminal. According to Ed Williams, Neill “never instructed us to write favorably about something because he was involved in it.”
He was also active with the Foundation for the Carolinas, as well as Central Carolinas Choices and with the Wildacres Leadership Initiative. “The patron saint of the arts,” is how Michael Marsicano, former president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas, describes Neill. He praised Neill’s efforts in managing to bring the ballet from Winston-Salem to Charlotte. “He never put himself in the limelight. He was a quiet, resolved person who worked with other corporate executives to get this done. But Rolfe was the glue that held them together,” Marsicano said.
“Rolfe has an internal compass,” he went on. “He has always known who he was and what he stood for. Knowing someone who had that much of his act together — I was a moth to the fire.” Near the end of his tenure as publisher, Neill was awarded the UNCC Distinguished Service Award for his two decades of leadership in the region.
HE REMEMBERS ‘EVERYTHING’ In the fall of 1988, Rolfe Neill had married Ann Marshall Snider, the mother of two sons and active in the community. He had courted her for six years. She died in 2016, after 28 years of marriage to Neill. “Sharing my life with someone is natural,” Neill said in 2017. “Before I was married, I can remember having arguments at parties: ‘Do you have to have children to be complete?’ ‘No, not necessarily,’ I would say. But having had children, I believe you absolutely do have to have children to be complete.” His biggest regret, he said, was not salvaging his first marriage to Rosemary. “Divorce is such a destructive, tumultuous thing,” he said. “I failed.”
Widowed and living alone in 2017, Neill described himself as a loner. He said he was selfish with his time and deeply involved in reading, mostly non-fiction. “I don’t need and don’t seek to participate in group activities,” he said. “I detest cocktail parties and do not attend them.” Yet, he was good company, according to former Eastover neighbor and clothier Paul Simon. “He is an incredible listener,” Simon said. “He remembers everything. At any future date, he can bring up some obscure fact he remembered from your conversation.”
Simon would see him walking in the neighborhood, usually eating an apple. “He’d be thinking about something, solving a problem or having a dialogue with himself. If it was your lucky day, he’d invite you to join him and you’d have a wonderful conversation and you wouldn’t want it to end.” PROUD OF THE OBSERVER Neill said most people won’t believe that there was not one day in his life that he couldn’t wait to get to work. “I had this strong desire to influence things for the better,” he said, “and on top of that, I never had a boss who acted like a boss. I was forever left alone, and boy, is that great pay.” Neill said he is proud of his work at the Observer. “Some things we didn’t get done. Some things maybe we fell short in. I tried to guide and inspire and improve people. But in the end, having said my piece, I left them to do what they thought best.”