© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former Charlotte Observer publisher Rolfe Neill, who helped shape the city, dies at age 90

 Rolfe Neill in front of the Charlotte Observer building
Making Modern Charlotte
PBS Charlotte
Rolfe Neill in front of the former Charlotte Observer building, before its demolition.

Former Charlotte Observer publisher Rolfe Neill, who helped shape the city during some of its biggest boom years and led a Pulitzer-winning newsroom, died Friday at the age of 90.

The Charlotte Observer first reported his death. No cause was given. He was the Observer's publisher for 22 years, until his retirement in 1997. Neill remained active in Charlotte organizations and causes such as Trees Charlotte, as well as serving on national boards such as the Knight Foundation.

Neill was one of the old breed of newspaper workers, who came of age in an era of hot-lead typesetting machines, rumbling presses and clattering typewriters. At UNC-Chapel Hill, he was editor-in-chief of the Daily Tar Heel from 1953-54.

A Mount Airy native, he served two years in the Army after graduating from Chapel Hill and worked at the Franklin Press, a weekly in western North Carolina, before joining the Observer in 1957. After becoming business editor — and making up the entire one-man business department — Neill left in 1961 to work at, and run, newspapers in Florida, New York and Philadelphia.

Neill was named publisher of the Charlotte Observer in 1975. He oversaw the paper for more than two decades, arguably the Observer’s golden age. The paper swelled its staff to a newsroom of more than 250 journalists, acquired and merged with the city’s afternoon daily Charlotte News, and picked up two Pulitzer Prizes for public service. One was for the Observer’s coverage of the devastating effects textile mill workers suffered from “brown lung,” while the other recognized the Observer’s coverage of the devastating collapse of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL ministries, a scandal-plagued televangelism media empire.

Readers got to know Neill through weekly columns. He advocated for greater investments in Charlotte institutions, such as a new performing arts facility, and led a “save the symphony” effort in the early 1990s that helped rescue the Charlotte Symphony from near-insolvency and labor disputes. He didn't hold back his opinions.

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

Along the way, Neill built himself into a pillar of the community. Along with business leaders such as Hugh McColl Jr., John Belk, Ed Crutchfield, Bill Lee and John Crosland, Neill was one member of “The Group,” an informal collection of local leaders who met regularly to talk about — and sometimes decide — issues facing Charlotte.

Neill said he balanced his civic activism with journalistic integrity by following a simple rule: The paper always comes first.

“We were not afraid to be caught loving our community,” Neill said in a Business NC profile. “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.’”

Of his board service, he said: “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.’”

In the decades after his retirement, harsh economic forces whittled away journalism, especially at the local level. The Observer was no exception, as its staff of reporters shrunk from hundreds to dozens. In a 2017 interview with the Daily Tar Heel, Neill emphasized that he was concerned about the state of journalism, and the U.S., as the press faltered.

"I am concerned about democracy without a vigorous, prosperous press to check on it,” said Neill.

But he made clear that he expected the ideals behind the profession to survive, and that he still believed in them.

"If you really want to worship something worthwhile, worship the truth," he said. "That’s all I want on my tombstone: He worshiped the truth.”

Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.