Former Charlotte Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill dies at age 90

Jul 14, 2023, 2:03 PM | Updated: 2:18 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rolfe Neill, a longtime newspaperman and editor who led The Charlotte Observer as its publisher when it won a pair of Pulitzer Prizes for public service, died Friday at age 90.

Neill, a North Carolina native whose journalism career included two stops in Charlotte between leadership positions in other big-city papers, died of complications from peritoneal cancer at his Lake Norman-area home, daughter Ingrid Ebert told the Observer.

In 1975, Neill became publisher and president of the Observer and the now-defunct afternoon Charlotte News. He retired as Observer publisher at the end of 1997, the newspaper reported.

Described as a perfectionist when it came to producing a newspaper, Neill also played a significant role in helping Charlotte grow and mature into a national powerhouse through his relationships with political and business leaders in the region and state.

“He had one foot in being the publisher of the newspaper and one foot in the community, and he was a force in both,” 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.”

The Observer won a Pulitzer in 1981 for a series of stories on “brown lung” suffered by textile workers breathing in dust and in 1988 for reporting on the financial misdeeds at the Charlotte-area PTL television ministry led by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

“I had this strong desire to influence things for the better,” Neill once said. “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.”

Born in Mount Airy in 1932, Neill spent the second half of his childhood in Columbus, Georgia, where he delivered the local paper. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he became editor of The Daily Tar Heel, the Observer reported.

After an Army stint that included working for Stars and Stripes and a brief time at the weekly Franklin Press newspaper in the North Carolina mountains, the Observer hired him to open the paper’s Gastonia bureau. By 1958 he was the paper’s business editor.

Next he worked at several newspapers in Florida, including The Miami Beach Daily Sun, and moved in 1965 to the New York Daily News, where he ultimately became an assistant managing editor. He then became editor of the Philadelphia Daily News until he returned to Charlotte.

Former Observer editors and reporters generated a range of descriptions about Neill’s work habits and demeanor.

Some cited his charisma, his ability to know the names of everyone working in the Observer building, and his expression of confidence in staff even when there were disagreements.

“He was one of the most personable people I’ve ever worked for,” former Observer reporter Elizabeth Leland said.

Others said it was sometimes difficult to meet his expectations.

“He was the smartest person I ever worked for, very strong in character and driven by high standards,” former Observer Editor Rich Oppel said. Still, he added, “I never met an editor who worked for Rolfe who felt that he or she measured up.”

Neill continued in civic and charitable endeavors in Charlotte after retirement, including literacy, the arts and the protection of green spaces.

Neill’s wife of 28 years, Ann Marshall Snider, died in 2016, the newspaper reported. He had several children from a previous marriage.

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Former Charlotte Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill dies at age 90