Rolfe Neill’s legacy

 In April 2021

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As newspapers’ influence crested, publisher Rolfe Neill played a pivotal role in Charlotte’s emergence.


It wouldn’t surprise many to hear that banking titan Hugh McColl Jr. strolled Charlotte’s uptown streets 30 years ago, imagining a stately skyline rising amid acres of surface parking lots.

But few could guess who was at McColl’s elbow on many of those walks, quietly but firmly troubleshooting his assumptions. Someone wiser about the city than he, McColl says now. Someone unafraid to tell him, “That’s a dumb idea.”

It was the one person in town with the power to upend a bad idea. The fellow who ran the newspaper down the street.

Rolfe Neill, publisher of The Charlotte Observer.

McColl, 85, is the best known among a handful of civic leaders who lifted Charlotte from its status as a generic Southern city to that of a thriving business center in the 1980s and 1990s. Joining him in the remake was a string of CEOs and a procession of mayors.

But no one matched what Neill brought to that exclusive executive circle: an institution with unparalleled reach in the city. Three out of every four adults read the Observer on any given day. Fans, in fact, were fond of saying it wasn’t news until it appeared in the Observer.

“Rolfe knew more about everything than I did,” McColl says. “I would be focused on one thing. And he would know about 40 things. And he would know a lot more about what other people thought about something than I did.”

Now 88, Neill still keeps up with all things Charlotte. He retains the sharp wit, trim physique and full head of silver hair that distinguished him in crowded community gatherings.

But these days Neill is more likely to be found digging in the dirt alongside some excited Scouts or elementary school students. His pet cause is TreesCharlotte, a nonprofit group that aims to replenish the city’s enviable tree canopy.

With the help of volunteers, the group has planted or given away more than 35,000 trees since 2012. It also has raised $8 million toward a $15 million endowment intended to keep Charlotte flush with trees for generations to come.

“Charlotte’s brand is the tree,” Neill says in an interview near his home amid the towering willow oaks of the Queen City’s Eastover and Myers Park neighborhoods. “That’s what everybody talks about. There’s so many trees! [Visitors] fly in and see them. And, of course, the colors in the fall are spectacular.”

It delights Neill to think that trees planted now will shade others long after he’s gone. He wishes he could be as confident about the future of the mighty newspaper he once led.

The Observer’s parent company, McClatchy, filed for bankruptcy in February 2020. New York-based hedge fund Chatham Asset Management now owns the Observer and McClatchy’s 29 other newspapers.

Chatham is also majority owner of Canada’s largest news chain, Postmedia Network Canada Corp., and owner of American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer.

This Observer is a shadow of its former self. Less than 10 years after he retired in 1997, audiences and advertisers began migrating to the web. While newspapers did the same, legions of new online competitors cut sharply into their revenue.

During Neill’s era, the Observer newsroom swelled to 260 journalists. Today’s digital economy supports a news staff one-fourth that size. Even so, Observer journalists continue to break big stories and call attention to important community issues. Will the newspaper continue to do so in ways yet to be discovered? Neill is optimistic. It’s easy to see why.

LOVE STORY

When Neill was named publisher in 1975, Charlotte had big ambitions. He nurtured a newspaper with big expectations to match.

Readers got his take on both in his popular Sunday columns, published adjacent to the editorial page. There, he could be both blunt and brilliant.

“We were not afraid to be caught loving our community,” Neill says. “On the other hand, we were never intimidated about addressing the community on sensitive topics that we felt needed talking about or taking a stand on.

“I think that’s one of the reasons the press is in trouble today and has been for many years. It’s afraid to be caught loving its community. It thinks, somehow, that’s a weakness. There’s a difference between being a booster and being someone who shows affection and understanding, and says, ‘Hey, we’re part of the community, too. We want to work and live in, and produce for, that community.’”

That view worried some in his newsroom, but it endeared Neill to McColl and other civic leaders who eventually came to be called simply “The Group.” They included First Union CEO Ed Crutchfield, Duke Power CEO Bill Lee, and former Mayors John Belk and Harvey Gantt. They saw in Neill someone who shared their aspirations for Charlotte. So they confided in him, and they listened closely when he responded to their ideas.

At the same time, they accepted Neill’s terms, which he also dictated to the various community boards on which he served.

 

We were not afraid to be caught loving our community.
-Rolfe Neill

“I would say, ‘Y’all need to understand that I will work [as] hard as I can for you,’” Neill says. “‘But if there is a conflict, the paper will come first. And I can’t keep anything out of the paper because I’m on your board.’”

McColl attests to that. “Rolfe never took off his reporter’s hat,” he says. “He was always curious. Always asking questions.”

Those CEOs, however, got out of bed every day thinking about their companies. McColl was building one of the nation’s biggest banks. Bill Lee was elevating Duke to be a global leader in peacetime nuclear power. John Belk was modernizing his department-store chain.

Neill was born in Mount Airy and grew up in Columbus, Ga., where he delivered the Ledger-Enquirer newspaper.

Neill, on the other hand, woke up and pored over the Observer, cover to cover. His reporting instincts told him what to expect next. That made him uniquely positioned to alert other civic-minded CEOs to an opportunity or threat.

Michael Marsicano was invited to some of those conversations after arriving in 1989 to become executive director of Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council.

“Rolfe was the glue that held that group of leaders together,” says Marsicano, now CEO of Foundation For The Carolinas, which oversees more than $2 billion.

Together, they took on transformational projects: a revitalized Fourth Ward, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte Convention Center, Discovery Place children’s museum, Charlotte Ballet, a revived Charlotte Symphony and more.

“I jokingly say we saved the symphony six times,” McColl says. “Rolfe was always in those meetings and having good suggestions. … He was an integral part of everything like that.”

For 135 years, the Observer has prodded, cajoled and at times shoved the city in directions that it perceived to be progress. At no time was it more effective than during the 22 years Rolfe Neill led it.

BIG CITY LIGHTS

Considering how well Neill related to Charlotte’s corporate giants, it is surprising that he once couldn’t imagine himself covering business as a journalist.

That changed after Neill took his first job at the Observer in 1957. At that point, the Mount Airy native had graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, served two years in the Army and spent a year realizing that small-town life at The Franklin Press weekly newspaper in the N.C. mountains was too slow.

The Observer hired him to open a bureau in Gastonia. One year later, he was offered a promotion as “business editor” at the newspaper’s downtown office. It was a one-person department, so he was also the business writer.

Neill went home and told his first wife, Rosemary Boney. “She said, ‘Business editor? You hate business,’” Neill recalls. “I said, ‘Well, I thought maybe I could learn something about it because I sure don’t know anything about it.’”

He started reading The Wall Street Journal. (It’s still his favorite national newspaper.) He wrote briefs about new companies, covered textile club luncheons and profiled people. Business news, he discovered, was a good fit. He connected well with people in business.

Higher-ups took notice. When the Observer’s parent company, Knight Newspapers, purchased The Coral Gables Times in 1961, Neill was invited to manage the south Florida paper. There, he learned how to run a business.

The 5,000-circulation newspaper operated in the shadow of a giant Knight paper, the Miami Herald. The Times was losing money. Neill eyed a weekly “shopper” its staff produced, called The Guide, filled with pages of store ads and personal classifieds. Nothing journalistic about it.

“I thought, ‘Well, we’ll close The Guide and save some money,’” Neill says. But he first spent a week going door-to-door, asking people if they had ever heard of it.

In telling what he heard back, Neill kicks his voice up an octave for dramatic effect.

“‘Oh, I love that!’” Neill says. “That’s what I heard at nearly every door I knocked on.”

Lesson learned. Ads were content, too. The Guide would stay. And under Neill, both it and the Times ultimately became profitable.

Neill went on to run another nearby Knight paper, the Miami Beach Daily Sun, before a headhunter snatched him in 1965 to be assistant to the publisher of The New York Daily News.

It was then the nation’s largest newspaper, with Sunday circulation of more than 4 million. It was and remains an irreverent tabloid with big headlines and lots of photos. Its staff was also heavily unionized, suspicious of outsiders and slow to change, Neill says.

One evening, as he worked as night managing editor, Neill picked up some type prepared for the front page. “A whistle blew,” Neill says. “I had violated union rules. I was a nonunion person doing union work. ‘Violation!’”

After more than four years in New York, he was ready to leave when his former employer circled back for him in 1970. Knight Newspapers had just purchased a tabloid as part of its deal to own the Philadelphia Inquirer. The sister publication Philadelphia Daily News beckoned readers with big headlines and eye-popping photos. It called itself “The People Paper.” But its journalism was lacking, Neill says, and it ran a distant third in a circulation battle with the Inquirer and still bigger Philadelphia Bulletin.

An office tower now fills the former Observer space after its demolition in 2016.

Knight asked Neill to be its executive editor and turn things around. He started by demanding more respect. The Daily News and Inquirer were in the same building, but nothing outside mentioned the tabloid. This suited the Inquirer just fine.

“The first thing I did was, I got our name on the front of the building,” Neill says. “We used blue in our Page 1 logo. So now there’s this big blue sign on the front of the Inquirer building. It just drove [the Inquirer] crazy.”

Neill hired David Lawrence to be his managing editor. Lawrence would later become Neill’s executive editor in Charlotte, then go on to be editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press, and finally publisher of the Miami Herald.

“Rolfe was stunningly competitive,” Lawrence says. “He worked hard to get to know the community. And if you are the No. 3 newspaper in the City of Brotherly Love, what are you going to do to stand out? Part of that is, you better get to know the community better than anyone else, certainly your competitors.”

Sports was a bright spot for the Daily News staff, and Philadelphia was a huge sports town. Neill and Lawrence came up with “The People Paper Homerun Payoff.” If someone hit a home run, readers who picked the correct player and inning could make some money.

More than 45 years later, newspaper readers in Philadelphia still play the game.

Neill reveled in taking his newspaper new places. It showed again when the city’s volatile and corrupt mayor, Frank Rizzo, got into a feud with another politician. Each accused the other of lying.

“‘What would you think,’” the city hall reporter asked Neill, “‘if I could get Rizzo to take a polygraph?’”

“I said, ‘I would think that was the greatest thing possible,’” Neill recalls, “‘and I would wonder, how would you pull it off?’ He said, ‘I’ll just ask him.’”

He did. And Rizzo agreed to take the test, adding: “If this machine says a man lied, he lied.”

The headline on the next day’s front page: “Rizzo lied, tests show.” The story ran with a photo of Rizzo strapped to the polygraph and the mayor’s quote in bold type: “If this machine says a man lied, he lied.”
Rizzo called Neill and told him: “You’re the worst thing that ever happened to Philadelphia, and I’m going to run you out of this town.”

He didn’t. Meanwhile, the Daily News’ circulation grew from 150,000 to 250,000. Both of its bigger competitors lost readers. Not surprisingly, Knight Newspapers returned with a new proposal. Was Neill willing to move to Charlotte to become publisher of the Observer?

It would be an experiment. A general manager traditionally led the business side of a Knight newspaper. But Knight had merged with Ridder Publications to form Knight Ridder in 1974. Ridder newspapers had publishers.

“I thought, ‘What the hell does a publisher do?’” Neill says. “And my memories of Charlotte were from the ’50s when I worked there as the business editor.”

That Charlotte of the mid-’70s couldn’t have been more different from Philadelphia or New York. People in the Queen City were more buttoned-down. Social life centered on church and country clubs. No liquor by the drink. Alcohol with dinner required a brown bag.

Neill doesn’t drink. “My drink of choice is industrial-strength Coca-Cola,” he says. But he enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere of large cities.

“I thought, ‘I’m not sure I want to go back there.’ So Rosemary and I said, ‘Well, if we don’t like the job, don’t like the town, we’ll move and do something else.’”

FRESH AMBITION

But the town had changed during the 15 years they’d been away. North Carolina National Bank (later Bank of America) and First Union (later Wachovia) were on the rise. Duke Power (later Duke Energy) had just brought online its first nuclear power plant. The city’s mayor, John Belk, had some big ideas for the city’s future.

The Observer also had a lot more going on. Its headquarters at 600 S. Tryon Street had been demolished, and in its place stood a spacious new facility. The building’s 350,000 square feet covered an entire block. Other businesses had moved to suburban sites, but Knight elected to stay in support of a decaying downtown’s dream of revitalization.

Neill sensed new energy, ambition. Yes, he could see himself becoming part of this Charlotte.

“When I left Charlotte in 1961, everyone wanted to be like Atlanta,” Neill says. “I came back and nobody wanted to be like Atlanta.”

Charlotte was out to make a name for itself. By coincidence, Neill was quickly handed a way to do the same.

An executive of a major Observer advertiser, Ivey’s department stores, was named chairman of the 1977 United Way campaign. He, in turn, asked Neill to head up the “major gifts” division. It solicited contributions from large companies and wealthy individuals.

“I had never raised a nickel in my life,” Neill says. “I decided, well, instead of getting myself a team of 25 or 30 people to call on [donors], I would do it myself. And it was a very good way to get to meet who was running Charlotte.

“That just seemed to lead to other things. Mainly things like building a new convention center, building Discovery Place and, later, the Blumenthal [Performing Arts] Center.”

Cliff Cameron, who then headed First Union, came up with the idea of a CEO group in 1983. Cameron had seen a similar idea in action in Pittsburgh, according to a 2009 Observer story.

“I don’t remember the first project where I was invited to come and be part of this discussion,” Neill says. “But I went, and out of that emerged the so-called Group. [It] was four or five people who had the biggest companies. I gave them the same little sermonette about [how] my first loyalty had to be with the paper.”

Neill says he understands why this circle of executives was sometimes viewed suspiciously.

“I think, properly, that people thought, ‘What is this? Why is this secret? Who are they? What do they represent?’ And, of course, we were all white men. … That was an issue for [many] and should have been for us. Except, if you were going to operate on the basis of CEOs, there weren’t any women CEOs. And minorities? No minorities.”

McColl says members of the group guarded their discussions to prevent speculators from snapping up land needed to carry out their ideas.

“The truth of the matter is, we were only trying to do something good for the city,” McColl says. “We never were trying to do something good for our companies. None of us, including Ed Crutchfield,” who was McColl’s business rival. “The four of us really were trying to support things that we thought were good for our city and would lift it.”

Neill says he remained loyal to the paper even as he led industry and government leaders to the Observer newsroom to talk out issues with the editor or the editorial board.

Fannie Flono was among the local news editors who sometimes fretted at seeing Neill sitting on a reporter’s desk. He hung out with powerful people in the community. What if he alerted them to stories not yet published? What if he pressured a journalist to pursue a story?

“That was going through a lot of people’s minds at the time,” says Flono, who was politics editor for many years. “But you know, I really can’t think of a time when he actually did that.

“He would kind of chat up people and, in the course of a chat, convey the notion of a story idea. But if you didn’t want to do it, you really could challenge him. Or, at least I could.”

Flono appreciated Neill’s willingness to back up his newsroom. She was the first Black woman at the Observer to be politics editor. Sometimes, white male politicians in Raleigh and elsewhere openly questioned her credentials.

“I was having a much longer relationship with these people than they had had before with a Black female,” she says. “Rolfe would always back me up when there was a complaint. He told them: ‘She’s the woman in charge, and that’s just the way it is. It has nothing to do with me. And I trust her implicitly.’”

The journalist in Neill drew him to the newsroom. But he had little need to worry about its work. When Editor David Lawrence moved on to Detroit in 1978, Neill hired another strong editor, Rich Oppel, a Florida native and former editor of the Tallahassee Democrat.

Under Oppel, the Observer dramatically expanded its coverage of outlying counties, a move that dearly mattered to Neill. In 1981, it opened a satellite newsroom in Rock Hill, S.C., for the launch of a regional tabloid section that came with the main newspaper. Similar tabloids were started in Gaston, Union, Catawba, Iredell and Cabarrus counties.

Oppel’s newsroom rewarded that growing number of readers with award-winning journalism.

In 1981, the Observer took on the Carolinas’ then-biggest employer — the textile industry. Journalists documented how more than 100,000 area workers had been exposed to invisible cotton dust that led to a deadly disease, byssinosis, or brown lung. The series was awarded journalism’s highest honor — the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for meritorious public service.

The newsroom was awarded a second Pulitzer Gold Medal in 1988 following a lengthy investigation that ultimately toppled the PTL Club television ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. (That same year, cartoonist Doug Marlette won a Pulitzer for work that appeared in both the Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

The PTL coverage was an especially arduous assignment, extending more than a decade. The Bakkers and their staff used their national daily broadcasts to launch boycotts of the Observer, attack its journalists and pressure its parent company, Knight Ridder.

PTL clearly was a fraud, Neill says. Still, he cautioned editors not to overplay a relatively minor story or ignore positive aspects of the ministry.

“I kept saying, ‘I think y’all are on to a great thing here. But let’s be careful about how we do this. We have plenty of time.’ For one thing, there was never anything in the paper to the effect of whatever, quote, ‘good things’ PTL was doing. They were sending food or clothing overseas.”

Ten days after Bakker resigned in disgrace in March 1987, Neill got the last word in a column. Mostly, he condemned. PTL stole millions of dollars from contributors and paid hush money to a young woman, Jessica Hahn, to keep quiet about a sexual encounter with Bakker. But Neill also signaled respect for the dignity of the fallen ministry’s dazed followers.

“Let us concede that under Jim Bakker, PTL built a Christian theme park that delights and satisfies millions,” Neill wrote. “The Bakker ministry has brought sunshine to some dark spots, be it the loneliness of a pregnant teenager or the bitterness of a man behind bars. . . . The issue isn’t whether Bakker does good — he does — but whether it’s morally permissible to occasionally flimflam folks in the name of higher purpose. My King James version says no.”

That same year, Neill moved on to a different set of contributors — patrons of the arts. He urged Charlotte voters to approve a $15 million bond issue toward the construction of a major downtown performing arts center. He even joined a city manager’s task force for the effort.

“There is no debate about whether we need a new facility,” Neill wrote in a column. “Ovens Auditorium was never a decent concert hall and is now aged out as a building as well.”

Neill’s key colleagues in Charlotte included Bob Burns, center, and John Luby.

Voters approved the bonds by a 2-1 margin. In 1993, Blumenthal opened with three state-of-the-art theaters and an $18.4 million endowment.

One year earlier, however, a crisis threatened that happy ending. The Charlotte Symphony, a centerpiece in plans for the Blumenthal, was in danger of dissolving. Musicians and management were deadlocked in salary negotiations and its board was out of money.

In a sternly worded column, Neill urged the Arts & Science Council to appoint a study group to help rescue the symphony, as well as other promising but fragile arts groups. Neill also dressed down the symphony’s musicians, management and board.

“We’re but a year distant from the opening of the [Blumenthal Performing Arts Center], whose chief renters are all symphony-connected,” Neill wrote. “We put at risk symphony-dependent arts groups such as Opera Carolina, the Oratorio Singers and the N.C. Dance Theatre [now the Charlotte Ballet].”

The symphony’s management, he wrote, had been tyrannical (“management can’t seek to break or gut the union”), musicians’ demands impractical (“Are these guys for real?”), and the board’s financial decisions careless (“didn’t have a realistic plan”).

“How about the board of the symphony itself?” he continued. “It’s bloated with 50 members, some of whom have been there since Beethoven was composing, and it’s not sufficiently diverse culturally or racially.”

One month later, Neill was named to head a “save the symphony” task force. He recruited Crutchfield, Lee, McColl and Gantt to be members. Their work helped to break the deadlock and keep the symphony playing. It also inspired the Arts & Science Council to launch still another fundraising campaign.

This campaign would seek to raise $25 million toward an endowment to support nonprofit arts groups. To head that, the council enlisted someone who had never led a major arts fundraising effort: Hugh McColl.

McColl raised $26.8 million. “It was the largest endowment [campaign] any arts group had in the United States at that time,” he says. In years to come, McColl would give or help raise more than $100 million for arts causes, as well as restore a burned-out church on North Tryon Street to be the McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

Five months before he retired, Neill thanked McColl in a column for sparking the revival of 11 blocks just north of Trade and Tryon streets.

“Nobody is on record as daring to dream as big as North Tryon Street has become,” Neill wrote. “The Blumenthal, Discovery Place, Spirit Square, Museum of the New South and the main branch of the public library. Now that’s a cultural district of distinction.”

What most readers didn’t know was how much Neill had contributed to all that.

“Rolfe and I used to walk together,” McColl says. “We would walk through the neighborhoods. So when we were thinking about things, we actually knew what we were talking about. We had been on the ground and looked at things as they really were.

“He challenged everything. And so you couldn’t get away with self-aggrandizement for the corporation or whatever. He never took off that hat — being publisher of the paper.”

LIBRARY TRIBUTE

Two worlds. Neill seamlessly stepped in and out of both. In 2005, some wanted a way to celebrate his career. They raised money to erect a sculpture.

“The Writer’s Desk” is strewn playfully in multiple pieces across the plaza of ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center in downtown Charlotte. Children often can be seen running in and around them: giant hand stamps, typewriter keys, a sharpened pencil and a tower of books topped by a quill that swivels in the breeze.

Etched in Italian marble are several passages taken from scores of Neill’s columns.

“We did not inherit the land from our ancestors,” reads one line from a column. “We borrowed it from our children.”

Former Charlotte City Council member Cyndee Patterson helped plan the sculpture. “[We wanted] an art piece that honored him but that was not a typical sculpture,” says Patterson, now president of Charlotte nonprofit Lee Institute. “We wanted a way to represent his words.”

Each of the hand stamps bears a message: SEE THE TRUTH, SPEAK THE TRUTH, HEAR THE TRUTH. Foundation For The Carolinas CEO Marsicano says that sums up Neill.

“He’s just frank and candid, and he tells it the way he sees it,” says Marsicano. “It’s not that he’s not gracious in the way he tells you how he sees it. He is.”

The region is much bigger now. The CEOs of many of those homegrown companies have sold or gone global. And there are many, many groups at civic tables.

“It’s an entirely different landscape,” Neill says. “It’s a more time-consuming job to knit all that together.”

It’s also harder to read all about it. As the Observer’s coverage of local news has shrunk, no other media outlet has come close to matching the reach it once had.

Will we see another era when readers can rely on a single news source to monitor everything from zoning meetings and art exhibits to last Sunday’s sermon? Neill longs for the day.

“The era of the Observer was the era of a large, well-funded news organization that could cover a lot of things for the whole community and get it done,” Neill says. “Somebody, I hope, is going to come up with the printed newspaper in a different form, but that reflects its completeness and its ability to inform and unite a community.” ■

Rick Thames was executive editor of The Charlotte Observer from 2004-17. He is the Knight-Crane Executive in Residence and visiting professor of journalism at Queens University of Charlotte.

Peter Taylor

At Charlotte’s ImaginOn children’s library, leaders honored Neill with sculptures featuring quotes from his columns.

 

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