In the ’80s and ’90s, Rolfe Neill was part of “The Group,” an unofficial cadre of local business leaders that held tremendous sway. The former Charlotte Observer publisher reflects on his distinguished career, the newspaper’s waning influence and his current passion: restoring Charlotte’s tree canopy.
by Rick Thames • photographs by Peter Taylor
It seems that people who ponder Charlotte’s future never tire of asking, “Will we ever see another Hugh McColl?” But to hear the retired Bank of America CEO tell it, those people should also be asking, “Will we ever see another Rolfe Neill?”
Hugh McColl Jr., 85, is the best known among a handful of civic leaders who lifted Charlotte from its status as a generic Southern town to that of a thriving cosmopolitan city in the 1980s and 1990s. Joining him in that remake over a span of two decades was a string of CEOs and a procession of mayors.
No one, however, matched what Rolfe Neill brought to that exclusive executive circle: a widely respected newspaper. As publisher of The Charlotte Observer, Neill led an institution with unparalleled reach in the city. Three out of every four adults read its pages on any given day. Fans, in fact, were fond of saying it wasn’t news until it appeared in the Observer.
It was Charlotte’s good fortune, McColl says, that Neill was no less intent than he was on propelling the city forward. McColl had the financial muscle. But Neill had the ideas and insights that came with managing a newspaper that covered the greater Charlotte area, end-to-end.
“Rolfe knew more about everything than I did,” McColl said in a recent interview. “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, lean physique and full head of silver hair that distinguished him in crowded uptown gatherings. But these days Neill is more likely to be found digging in the dirt alongside some excited scouts or elementary-school students. His cause is TreesCharlotte, a nonprofit 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 deep in trees for generations to come.
“Charlotte’s brand is the tree,” Neill told me in an interview near his home amid the towering willow oaks of Eastover and Myers Park. “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.”
Neill and his first wife, Rosemary Boney, raised three daughters and two sons. They divorced in the 1980s and, he says, remain good friends. He later wed Ann Marshall, who had two sons from a previous marriage. They were married for 28 years before Ann passed away in 2016.
In all, Neill counts seven children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. As he counts, it’s clear that he keeps track of them all. It delights Neill to think that trees planted now will shade them and others long after he’s gone. He wishes he could be as confident about the future of the newspaper he once led.
The Charlotte Observer’s parent company, McClatchy, filed for bankruptcy in February. In September, McClatchy was purchased by its biggest debtholder, Chatham Asset Management. The hedge fund now owns the Observer and McClatchy’s 29 other newspapers. It also owns American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, and is majority owner of Canada’s largest news chain, Postmedia Network Canada Corp.
Today’s Observer is a shadow of what it was when Neill ran it. Less than 10 years after he retired in 1997, audiences and advertisers began migrating to the web. And while newspapers did, too, legions of new online competitors cut sharply into their revenues. During Neill’s era, the Observer newsroom swelled to 260 journalists. Today’s digital economy supports a news staff one-fourth that size. Still, the newspaper’s journalists continue to break major stories and call attention to important community issues. Neill hopes that tradition continues.
“I think the Observer should always exist as an information medium,” Neill says. “The platform is clearly shifting from a printed page to digital . … But I think the hunger for information will drive entrepreneurs to get it to you somehow.”
For 134 years, the Observer has prodded, cajoled and at times even shoved the city in directions that it perceived to be progress. At no time was the newspaper more effective at doing this than it was during the 22 years Neill led it. When he was named publisher in 1975, Charlotte had big ambitions. Neill nurtured a newspaper with big expectations to match.
Although he was born in Mount Airy and grew up in Columbus, Ga., Neill’s career to that point had taken him to Miami, New York and Philadelphia. He easily sized up what Charlotte had going for it, as well as what was missing. Readers got his take on both in his popular Sunday columns, which appeared on a page adjacent to the editorial page. There, he could be both blunt and brilliant.
“We were not afraid to be caught loving our community,” as Neill explains it now. “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 at times, but it endeared Neill to McColl and other civic leaders who eventually came to be called simply “The Group.” It included First Union (now Wells Fargo) CEO Ed Crutchfield, Duke Power (now Duke Energy) 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 told them what he thought of their ideas.
At the same time, they accepted Neill’s terms, which he also dictated to the various community boards that wanted him as a member.
“I would say, ‘Y’all need to understand that I will work 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.’” He did, however, respect timelines for major announcements.
“I certainly did hold secrets in my head about knowing things in advance,” Neill says, such as when the leaders of Charlotte Nature Museum set out to open Discovery Place in uptown in the early ’80s. Even then, Observer reporters typically were first in local media to know. Sometimes they found out on their own. Other times, their highly competitive publisher dropped a vague note about where they should look.
“Rolfe never took off his reporter’s hat,” McColl says. “He was always curious. Always asking questions. But he had a civic hat in which he and I and Bill Lee could sit down and talk about things calmly. The truth of the matter is, we were only trying to do something good for the city. We were never trying to do something good for our companies. … The four of us really were trying to support things that we thought were good for our city and would lift it.”
Those CEOs, however, did get out of bed every day thinking about their companies. McColl was building one of the nation’s biggest banks. Lee was elevating Duke to be a global leader in peace-time nuclear power. Belk was modernizing his growing chain of department stores.
Neill, on the other hand, got out of bed each day and pored over the Observer, cover to cover. His reporting instincts told him what to expect next from news developments. That made him uniquely positioned to alert other civic-minded CEOs to an opportunity or threat.
And together, they took on truly transformational projects: A revitalized Fourth Ward, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte Convention Center, Discovery Place, the Charlotte Ballet, a revived Charlotte Symphony, the Transportation Center 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.”
Neill related so well to Charlotte’s corporate giants, in fact, that it is surprising he once couldn’t imagine himself covering business as a journalist. That changed after he took his first job at The Charlotte Observer in 1957. At that point, he had graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, served two years in the Army and spent a year finding out that small-town life at a weekly newspaper in the North Carolina mountains was too slow for him. The Observer hired him to open a bureau in Gastonia. One year later, he was offered a promotion and relocation to the newspaper’s downtown office. The title: “business editor.” It was a one-person department, so he was also the business writer.
Neill went home and told his first wife, Rosemary.
“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, which is still his favorite national newspaper. He wrote briefs about new businesses, covered textile-club luncheons and profiled people he met. Business news, he discovered, was a good fit. He connected well with people in business.
“Businesspeople have always been very good to me on the beats I was covering,” Neill says. “They were just helpful, accommodating.” That fit did not go unnoticed by higher-ups. When the Observer’s parent company, Knight Newspapers, purchased The Coral Gables Times in 1961, Neill was invited to manage it. There, he began to learn how to run a business.
The Times was a 5,000-circulation newspaper operating in the shadow of a giant Knight paper, The Miami Herald. The Times was losing money. Its tiny staff also produced a weekly “shopper” called The Guide. It was page after page of store ads and personal classifieds — nothing journalistic about it. It went to 50,000 households in the Miami area for free.
“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.
“‘Oh, I love that!’ That’s what I heard at nearly every door I knocked on,” Neill says, kicking his voice up an octave for dramatic effect. Readers raved about the personal ads they could buy to sell an unused baby carriage or lawn mower. The ads were much cheaper than those in the more sophisticated Herald.
Lesson learned. Ads were content, too. The Guide would stay. And under Neill, both it and the Times ultimately became profitable.
Next came stints at the Miami Beach Daily Sun, The New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Daily News.
As executive editor of the Philadelphia paper, Neill hired David Lawrence to be his managing editor.
“Rolfe was stunningly competitive,” says Lawrence, who would later become Neill’s executive editor in Charlotte. “He worked hard to get to know the community.” Under Neill’s leadership, the Daily News’ circulation grew from 150,000 to 250,000. Both of its bigger competitors lost readers. So it was not surprising when 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. To this point, Knight Newspapers had not had publishers. The business side of a newspaper was handled by a general manager. But Knight had recently merged with Ridder Publications to form Knight Ridder, and 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 couldn’t have been more different from Philadelphia or New York. People in Charlotte were more buttoned-down. Social life centered on church and country clubs. There was no liquor by the drink — anybody who wanted a cocktail with dinner needed to bring it in 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,’” Neill says. But the town had changed during the 15 years he’d been away. Two Charlotte-based banks — North Carolina National Bank (later to become Bank of America) and First Union (later Wachovia, then Wells Fargo) — were on the rise. Duke Power (later Duke Energy) had just brought online its first nuclear power plant. Mayor Belk had some big ideas for Charlotte’s future.
The Observer also had a lot more going on. Its crowded headquarters at 600 S. Tryon St. had been demolished and, in its place stood a spacious, 350,000-square-foot facility that covered an entire block. Many businesses had moved to suburban shopping centers, but Knight elected to stay put 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. And 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, soliciting contributions from large companies and wealthy individuals. Knight had left it to Neill to figure out exactly what a publisher should do. This felt right, he decided, so he threw himself into it.
“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.
Cliff Cameron, who headed First Union from 1966 to 1984, 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.”
Some viewed this circle of executives with suspicion, and Neill says he understands why.
“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,” aside from Gantt.
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. Some journalists, however, had concerns.
“I don’t know that they ever got over it,” Neill says. “They were extremely, and properly, cautious that there might be some red lines being crossed. But there certainly weren’t.”
Fannie Flono was among 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 of those 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.”
What Flono appreciated most about Neill was his willingness to back up his newsroom. As the first Black woman at the Observer to be politics editor, she sometimes had her credentials openly challenged by white male politicians in Raleigh and elsewhere.
“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 Lawrence moved to the Detroit Free Press 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, launching tabloids that came with the main newspaper in Gaston, Union, Catawba, Iredell and Cabarrus counties and in York County, S.C. Newsrooms in Gaston and York expanded to more than 25 people.
It had been 32 years since Neill opened the first Gastonia bureau. In the first month of the Gaston Observer, he regularly dropped by unannounced. At times, he took off his suit jacket, loosened his tie and edited stories alongside startled local news editors.
In Charlotte, the main newsroom still glowed from winning the highest honor in journalism. Months before, the Observer had been awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service. That award honored a lengthy investigation that ultimately toppled the popular and corrupt PTL 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. These were the second and third Pulitzers to come during the Neill-Oppel era.
The first, awarded in 1981, also took on a powerful local institution — the textile industry. Journalists documented how more than 100,000 area workers were being exposed to invisible cotton dust that led to a deadly disease, byssinosis, or brown lung.
The PTL coverage extended 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 minor developments in the 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.” Ten days after Bakker resigned in disgrace in March 1987, Neill summed it up 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,” he 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 the city’s first performing-arts center. He joined a city manager’s task force for the effort and promised that the Observer would contribute to a separate effort to raise private funds.
“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.”
Voters approved the bonds by a 2-1 margin. In 1992, the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center opened with three state-of-the-art theaters at a total cost of $43.6 million.
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 N.C. Blumenthal Center for the Performing Arts, 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).”
One month later, Neill was named to head a “save the symphony” task force. He recruited Crutchfield, Lee, McColl and former Mayor Gantt to be members. Their work helped 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, a figure that elevated him as a leading fundraiser for Charlotte’s arts world.
“It was the largest endowment [campaign] any arts group had in the United States at that time,” McColl says. In years to come, he would give or help raise well over $100 million to arts causes, as well as restore a burned-out church on North Tryon to be the McColl Center for Art + Innovation.
Five months before he retired in 1997, Neill thanked McColl in a column for sparking the revival of 11 blocks just north of Trade and Tryon.
“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.”
Two worlds, yet Neill seamlessly stepped in and out of both. In 2005, some community members 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 in uptown Charlotte. Children often can be seen running in and around the giant hand stamps, typewriter keys, sharpened pencils and tower of books topped by a quill that swivels in the breeze. There, 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. “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’s 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.
That sums up Neill, says Foundation for the Carolinas CEO Michael Marsicano, who came to Charlotte in 1989 to become executive director of the Arts & Science Council.
“He’s just frank and candid, and he tells it the way he sees it,” says Marsicano, who also helped with the sculpture. “It’s not that he’s not gracious in the way he tells you how he sees it. He is.”
Now, Marsicano and the foundation often tackle projects and topics that once might have involved a Rolfe Neill or Hugh McColl — a regional system of greenways, restoration of the historic Carolina Theatre and an economic-mobility task force, for example.
Should Charlotte expect another circle of CEOs to step in at some point? Marsicano doesn’t think so. The city is more diverse now and can’t be expected to adhere to a single agenda. The region is much bigger now, and the CEOs of many of those homegrown companies have either sold or gone global. And there are many, many civic tables.
“So, what we now have is the challenge of connecting all the different tables,” Marsicano says. “And that is harder and messier. And things take longer to get done.”
Neill agrees, and he praises the foundation for its work in doing that.
“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. McColl says he and the Observer didn’t alway see eye to eye, but he believes the city benefited when everyone could read from the same page.
“What we’ve lost is two things,” McColl says. “We’ve lost the truth. And we’ve lost a [shared] understanding of the issues and facts. We have people who never read The Charlotte Observer. Who have no concept of fact. Democracy is under tremendous attack. And arguably the paper doesn’t have the influence it once had. Doesn’t even come close.”
Will we see another era when readers can rely on one 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.” SP
Rick Thames joined The Charlotte Observer as a newsroom editor in 1989 when Rolfe Neill was publisher. Thames became executive editor of The Wichita Eagle in 1997. He returned to the Observer as executive editor in 2004 and retired in 2017. He now teaches journalism in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte.